‘Listen to Me Marlon’ takes a unique approach to illuminate Marlon Brando’s intellect
January 30, 2015
Considering the enormous imprint actor Marlon Brandon left on American culture, it would seem that assembling a biopic would be relatively straightforward. But filmmaker Stevan Riley and producer John Battsek decided to take a more challenging route. Given extraordinary access to the Brando family archives, including a collection of self-hypnosis tapes made by Brando himself, they decided to allow the immensely talented, and deeply flawed, actor to tell his story in his own words.
The result, "Listen to Me Marlon," which premiered this week in the Sundance Film Festival World Documentary program is a fascinating portrait, as unique and intellectually profound as its complex subject.
Perhaps it took a team of British filmmakers to help unravel the mysteries of one of America’s most famous movie icons. So famous that references require one word only, the name Brando summons images of an anguished laborer bellowing in rage and despair and according to Riley, unfairly, imprinted him as a cardboard stereotype — the handsome rogue with a short fuse that tended to rely more on brawn than brains.
Battsek leads the London-based film company Passion Pictures that brought "Restrepo" to Sundance and Riley is an award-winning documentarian, also based in London.
Many assume that Brando’s personality matched his persona on screen. But Riley and Battsek’s film paints a different picture.
The mood is set with Brando’s trademark gravelly, muffled voice reflecting on his art and life as a primitive hologram of his head turns on a black and white screen. It becomes apparent that the man behind a string of blue collar, common man characters is, in real life, an intellectual seeking ways to understand his own troubled life that featured an alcoholic mother and a brutal father.
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According to Riley, "The more I researched the more complicated it got. Marlon had experienced a fair amount of trauma and, especially in his later life, he became very interested in biofeedback, meditation and self-hypnosis. They were very personal. He had quite an insightful relationship with himself."
That probably comes as a surprise to American audiences who grew up reading frequent tabloid tales about Brando’s professional and romantic exploits: his meteoric rise to stardom followed by bitter battles with directors and producers, marital infidelities and family tragedies.
But after two years of listening to "several hundreds of hours" of tapes, from reel-to-reel to cassettes, reviewing stacks of papers including plenty of front-page headlines, and, of course, re-watching highlights from Brando’s 39 starring roles, Riley came away with a different impression.
"He was actually very sensitive."
Riley adds, "I appreciate more than ever his range. There has never been an actor before or since who has accomplished that."
Brando’s notorious disputes with directors, including his famous flap with Francis Ford Coppola while working on "Apocalypse Now," Riley attributes to Brando’s "perfectionism."
"When fully engaged he wanted the best for it. He was a workhorse when on the set but would run into disputes with a director or a producer. He wanted to be involved in the creative process and never got enough credit for that. I think he was a pioneer," said Riley.
Riley’s self-imposed challenge was to edit down the essence of Brando’s tapes to expose that deeper layer.
"I wanted to show the effort, the depth he went to. He was a real student of the vernacular, how people act and how that comes to bear on his acting."
Citing Brando’s iconic depiction of the Mafia boss Vito Corleone in "The Godfather" as an example, Riley said he marveled "All that stuff was in Marlon’s head. I didn’t understand who this man was. As it evolved I was struck by his humanity.
"I hope this film will overturn some of the stereotypes — that he was uncouth, mumbling, slovenly. He operated at the extremes but he was very human."
Of course, Riley would rather let Brando tell you himself.
"Listen to Me Marlon" is in the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition. The winners in each category will be announced Saturday evening and some of those will be screened Sunday. The World Documentary winner is scheduled to run at 1 p.m. at the Library Center Theater. The film was produced and developed by Showtime, and will premiere on the network later this year. The filmmakers are also looking for a theatrical release..