“I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.” That classic scene from “On The Waterfront” was part and parcel behind Marlon Brando‘s release into the stratosphere of supercool. Beginning with his stage debut as Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (which he, of course, reprised in the 1951 film adaptation), his film debut in “The Men,” and a string of larger-than-life roles culminating with his Oscar-winning turn as Terry Malloy in ‘Waterfront,’ Hollywood was Brando’s oyster in the 1950s, and a man became a cultural symbol. Through these roles, and future titanic turns in “The Godfather,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “The Last Tango in Paris,” we know and remember Marlon Brando as one of the greatest screen actors of all time. But, what of the man behind the actor? This question fuels Stevan Riley‘s documentary, “Listen To Me Marlon,” where we get unprecedented insight into the man himself, and find out how he, for example, thought his ‘Waterfront’ scene wasn’t anywhere near his best acting. One can only truly understand oneself through self-analysis, which is what gives “Listen to Me Marlon” its hook: this is Brando on Brando, and it’s scintillating stuff.
Throughout his life, Brando recorded his thoughts on audio tapes and stashed them away, never imagining that they would one day become a most valuable tool in telling his story. Riley was given access to thousands of hours of recorded material, and with them strung together a collage of sorts that paints an extraordinarily insightful picture of Marlon Brando, the person. Without the crutch and age-old documentary staple of taking heads, Riley gives Brando the freedom to narrate his own story in full, only breaking this rule with primary source behind-the-scenes footage from press tours, or clips from Brando’s eclectic filmmography. The technique is a bit of a double-edged sword: there are patches where the rhythm of the documentary is jarringly dissonant thanks to how the recordings are edited and mixed together. The unevenness is mostly felt in the beginning, where Brando talks about the start of his acting career, and the life-changing influence Stella Adler had on him. The difference in quality and time-period of the recordings is at times felt in a single sentence, and one gets the odd sensation that Riley is rushing Marlon Brando.
Brave through the patchy first segment, however, and you’ll be rewarded with the effects of the finer edge. Things truly take off after we get Brando’s version of what exactly happened during the infamously difficult production of “Mutiny On The Bounty.” His reputation as a spoiled child festered in the media, and his disillusionment with the film industry grew in proportion to his love for the simple life in Tahiti (where ‘Bounty’ was shot). “I had nothing to give them, they had everything to give me,” Brando says of the Tahitians, who couldn’t care less that his was the biggest movie star in the world. Tahiti was a major turning point in Brando’s life. As a public figure, it gave him the impetus to become involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, putting his acting career on the back burner, which was reflected in declining box office numbers and substandard roles (clips from “Candy” are a comedic highlight). In his private life, he met his third wife there and had two children with her, one of which was Cheyenne Brando. For the readers who might not know why that’s significant, I won’t spoil it, but it’s around this point, right before “The Godfather” period, where “Listen To Me Marlon” finds its most absorbing rhythm and never lets go.
Once we move into the ’70s, the ‘Godfather’ and ‘Tango’ period, we get a much more introspective Brando. A man coming to terms with his profession, while simultaneously disowning Hollywood with his legendary Oscar rejection. He undoubtedly started to abuse his power, making $14 million dollars for 12 days work on a “silly movie” (1978’s “Superman”), and pushing Francis Ford Coppola to the brink of sanity in “Apocalypse Now.” All of this started to reflect in Brando’s increasing weight. Hearing it told from Brando’s perspective, through his psychoanalysis of himself, is what makes “Listen To Me Marlon” a fascinating documentary, and something much deeper than a simple visual companion to his Wikipedia page. Watching the man who redefined method acting, and whose natural talents turned characters on a page into Gods on the silver screen, get sucked into the cantankerous world of fame and fortune is undeniably moving. At some point in his life, Marlon Brando lost the will to be a contender. “Listen To Me Marlon,” while rough in its assembly, is a gripping picture of the rise and fall of that will. [B+]