Intimate ‘Listen to Me’ follows Brando in his own words

Tom Long
The Detroit News

“Listen to Me Marlon” is one of the more unique documentaries in memory, being essentially an autobiography of a screen legend who has been dead for more than a decade.

Over his lifetime Marlon Brando recorded his thoughts, memories and musings on tapes. Those audio recordings have been painstakingly assembled — a snippet from here, a rant from there, a memory from somewhere else — to tell his story as pictures and scenes from that well-documented life float by. The result is intimate, touching, telling and honest in a way rarely seen or heard.

Understand, Brando didn’t know these tapes would ever be heard. He must have loved the sound of his own voice and simply needed to express himself in some way. At times he’s leading himself to a peaceful place with a self-hypnotic chant; at others, he’s lamenting the profit motives in Hollywood or wondering at the marvel of his own circumstance. Throughout, he’s aware of his own longing for love and affection.

That longing was forged by an alcoholic mother who died young, and an alcoholic, abusive father who was absent for long stretches as he worked as a traveling salesman. As a young, gorgeous man the aimless Brando moves to New York City and, with no clear intention, begins studying acting under Stella Adler, who must have quickly realized his potential. She actually took him in to live at her house.

Then came “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and Brando was an instant stage sensation, which of course led to movies. Writer-director Stevan Riley has uncovered an early Brando screen test and it’s incredible how the camera loves him from every angle.

For his first film, “The Men,” Brando plays a veteran paralyzed from the waist down. Using Adler’s Method acting approach he goes and spends three weeks with similarly afflicted vets, incorporating their movements, thoughts and emotional frustrations into his performance. Within a few years, he has transformed American acting, won an Oscar for “On the Waterfront” and become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

But all along Brando considers acting a “con” and a “lie.” After much frustration while filming the 1962 remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” Brando sours on acting and becomes active in the civil rights movement. Hollywood is just a way to make money until “The Godfather” and “Last Tango in Paris” come along in 1972. Then he’s back on top, then he sours again.

It’s fascinating history, but the real revelation here is the man’s interior struggles to make sense of life. “Listen to Me Marlon” is told with the honesty of a man who doesn’t ever expect to be heard, with the sincerity of a completely interior dialogue. It’s a one-of-a-kind film about a one-of-a-kind screen legend, a man who transformed acting without ever really knowing what he thought of it.

“Listen to Me Marlon”


Not rated

Running time:

95 minutes

At the Detroit Film Theatre