Stevan Riley’s deconstruction of Marlon Brando, courtesy of Marlon Brando, is probably the best documentary of the year.
If ever a question strove to reach the heartland of rhetorical definition, it would struggle to get any closer than the simple yet infinitely complex query of how to define one Marlon Brando, Jr. Frequently cited the finest screen actor of all time, rivalled only by the likes of De Niro, but arguably far more influential; Brando’s genius – like numerous other larger then life characters lost in the blinding limelight birthed during the American twentieth century – was not only laden with intriguing philosophical theory, but also haunting internal tragedy. During the pre-social media, pre-twenty-four-hour operations of paparazzi and rolling news, the days of Keith Moon and Oliver Reed, Hunter Thompson and Bruce Lee, all the way back to Howard Hughes, superstardom had a tendency to consume its tenants in a more private fashion than we’re used to seeing today, only adding to the drips and drabs of mythical majesty now afforded to us when it comes to said tenants’ virtuoso public performances and equally fascinating lifestyles.
So where does Brando fit in? Right alongside of course, tucked away in time, surrounded by legend. Even now, with the release of Stevan Riley’s quite extraordinary documentary, Listen to Me Marlon, it is difficult to gauge a collective idea of a man admired by so many, to grasp a singular audience viewpoint. Instead, as Brando mumbles through what must amount to mile upon mile of personal amateur tape recordings – painstakingly recovered, researched, and collated by Riley and his team (a task that apparently remains to be completed) – the only viewpoint conveyed is that of Brando himself. Riley’s film doesn’t try to tell us what to think of Brando, to manipulate who he was or what he believed. Rather, it presents a reclusive star in his own words, juxtaposing public image with private thoughts to such an accurate degree that the individual viewing experience feels quite personal, thus making it difficult to precisely define en masse Brando’s most compelling characteristic, countless of which are depicted in compelling fashion throughout.
From a filmmaking point of view, and an important aside of Riley’s presentation technique, the picture makes you want to get on your knees and praise the Hollywood gods for just this once being to slow to base another standard, sanitised biopic on such a wealth of new material. Indeed, Riley does Brando far more justice than any dramatic director or actor could possible hope to accomplish, simply by taking apart and piecing together the man himself, over and over again. Certainly there’s a grounded chronology that sets in after a challenging opening fifteen minutes or so (like The Godfather, its worth it if you commit), with A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, through Don Corleone and Colonel Walter E. Kurtz all present and correct. It’s what went on around the films themselves that fascinates most however, whether it be the coded vulnerability inside Brando’s head, or the traditionally steely, charming, sometimes terrifically aloof and/or awkward public persona he portrayed, capped by his fiery dedication to civil and social causes a man of his statue and background regularly stood alone in fighting. By the time we reach the greatest all time fuck you to Hollywood, instigated by Brando at the 45th Academy Awards in 1973, it’s difficult to be surprised as much as it to supress a smile. It all just makes sense.
At the heart of the piece is what Brando will always be best known for as future generations roll by. His Stanislavski-inspired methods of pure realism on screen altered and drove cinematic acting to such an influential and powerful extent that cinema changed with it. A lost decade of flawed talent during the 1960s has done little to alter the view many hold to this day; that he remains the greatest ever to grace the silver screen. Such a view is of course subjective, but that’s the beauty of Riley’s picture, as Brando’s consistent, insightful, sometimes brutal critiquing of his own work comes to a head with a glorious final soliloquy, as he encapsulates and recognises the practical necessity in the modern world of the faux-based madness that is a trip to the cinema, the culmination of his profession. To a man for whom escape was everything, the art and function of escapism could not have been clearer. For Brando, it just happened to play out thirty feet high in front of millions of people. But boy, did he do it with class.
Listen to Me Marlon is currently doing the rounds at all major international film festivals.