Listen to Me Marlon opens to an analog recording of Marlon Brando contemplating the future of movies with a crude CG rendering of his face, now aged, as his mouth moves to the words spoken: words that express his synthetic representation in a place where he feels nothing is real. The tape is titled “Self-hypnosis.” One, among bags filled with hundreds of others, is Brando’s self-diagnostic foray into inner solitude, an intimate voice with rich precedence naked for the first time. The audio recordings contain his ruminations, self-reflections, observations, and personal confessions, which are spread out over a multi-textured pastiche culled together with the cooperation of the Brando estate.
Listen to Me Marlon is primarily an archival assemblage of home movies, tabloids, pictures, personal artifacts, news footage, and collected scenes from the library of his work and is completely devoid of interviews from close counterparts or scholarly insights that would’ve broken its nostalgic tone. There are reenactments, but they compliment the original artifacts so well that they’re nearly invisible with sepia tones, washed out and high contrasted or grainy imagery, domestic tableaux, vignetted and blurred scenes, and objects that manifested some particular pathos in Brando’s life. The film placed the audience from a unique vantage point as if we were Brando posthumously witnessing his life flashing by and stopping at certain moments that told the entire story. Listen to Me Marlon gave the sense of an intruder wandering inside the actor’s emotional sanctum—a kind of invasion for the characters the actor permitted inside, but a reality he could never come to terms with.
We experience a man searching for truth, authenticity, and validation in the world he felt was superficial. We hear interior monologues beginning with his home life in Omaha, Nebraska, of his “poetic” but alcoholic mother whom he felt abandoned by. And his equally alcoholic, physically and verbally abusive father whom Brando continually strived for acceptance from his entire life.
Brando vacillates from hatred to reprieve towards his parents but nonetheless we see how these experiences created a damaging emotional scaffolding. Brando reflects on his beginnings in New York and the alienated young man’s quest for human understanding with his impulsive habits of people observation. The film gives attention to his intensive study with Stella Adler and the fledgling Method Acting movement with archival footage and temporary tangents devoted to her and the impact she had on him. Artistically inspired, Brando’s disillusionment of Hollywood had ripened after his success with A Streetcar Named Desire. He immediately disagreed with the cult of personality acting in Hollywood—the actor as a product for public consumption. He internalizes these observations as they interplay with his deepening sense of the craft and his parallel indifference with fame.
The film devotes significant analysis to Brando’s wrong turn in 1962 after filming Mutiny on the Bounty when his feelings of desensitization hit a fault line. Because of Brando’s aesthetic differences in his strive for realization, he caused the production hundreds of thousands of dollars in delays and cost overruns and felt the blow back in Hollywood and the press that labeled him a difficult personality to work with. Brando takes a separation from the industry and immerses himself in Tahitian culture, which he viewed as idyllic because of the happiness, tranquility, and love he felt he observed in the people—the place where he raised his daughter Cheyenne who would later have a tragic ending. Here, we begin to see a new pattern emerge in Brando.
Whenever he felt marginalized by Hollywood he would gravitate to social causes. Brando commiserated with people he felt were subjugated by others in power, which influenced his successful Civil Rights to American Indian campaigns. In Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci dissected Brando’s psyche to such a personal degree for the role that the actor felt violated and emptied, which further distanced him from Hollywood. This emotional pendulum continues to the end of his career, as he expresses shame in his less celebrated works to hearing bytes of resurrection, commitment and renewed vibrancy in his comeback with The Godfather.
But his emotional swings created a disastrous love affair among those in his personal life. We see Brando cave into emotional swings that further alienate him from what he seeks in the world. Footage reveals him unconscionably flirting with interviewers and tabloids expose his scandalous affairs as we hear the clarity of his self-awareness and guilt in his complicity of the damage he’s done to his children. Specifically—among the other 14 children he spawned—his son, Christian Brando, and the shooting of his sister’s boyfriend to death over accusations of abuse.
Listen to Me Marlon expertly augments and foreshadows Brando’s troubling personal hemorrhages with imagery and sound bytes. We hear phone messages left by Christian wanting to know if Brando would be around when the young man intended to visit, without a response from the actor. The next scene shows news footage of the event with the details that emerged ending on Brando’s shame. Cheyenne’s suicide after multiple attempts in Tahiti was symbolic, a tragic denouement but logical conclusion to what Brando unconsciously rejected in his real life for what he fleetingly found in his art. Brando’s death in The Godfather mirrored the one in his real life, but one in which he would’ve felt authentic.