Movie Reviews: "Listen to Me Marlon" Is An Unnerving Experience

Share with friends



I enjoy documentaries, usually, for the look into someone’s life that they afford us, but I dislike being made to feel like I paid the price of admission just to be a peeping tom...

I thought Listen to Me Marlon would be an interesting watch, given that I have never seen the entirety of a film he acted in. Sure, I knew of the guy via pop culture osmosis, but somehow I grew up in a household where, for all the movies we had, his weren't part of the collection. On the way there, the thing strongest in my head was the line from that Bowie song. "I feel tragic like I'm Marlon Brando..." I considered that fair warning, but still had no idea what I was in for.

The documentary itself is fascinating. During his life, Marlon recorded hundreds of hours of tapes, memoirs and to do lists, self hypnosis tapes... And by cutting together these and interviews and news stories, the narrative of the film is built.

The soundtrack, too, does a good deal to drive the story along, and it is in the musical choices that the filmmaker most shows his hand--because other than Marlon and those talking to him, you never have any other narrator. Obviously the clips are chosen to tell a story, but no one steps in with any commentary. There are no psychologists or historians, just Brando’s voice, while images from his life, videos of him, him in movies, him at press junkets, in court… there is something very intimate feeling about this documentary because of it.

In this particular case, that intimacy lends itself to a feeling of unease, because they talk often of how secluded he was, how private, how he kept himself and his private life out of the public eye. And so the idea of handing the audience these deeply personal and reflective, introspective musings on a plate feels very against what Brando would have wanted. Particularly when you’re sitting there listening to him addressing himself.

I enjoy documentaries, usually, for the look into someone’s life that they afford us, but I dislike being made to feel like I paid the price of admission just to be a peeping tom.

Then again, I have to wonder if that wasn’t the intent of it, since Brando talks often of feeling unwelcome and a sense of otherness. It makes me wonder if the tone of that wasn’t just to make you feel like you could empathize with him more. If so, I think it was an utterly unnecessary maneuver on the filmmaker’s part.

Brando talks about things that everyone experiences, self esteem issues and fear and disappointment, familial troubles, and a yearning to make something of himself. He is absolutely relatable, and even when he goes off on very actor-specific thoughts, about the truth in characters and about lying for a living, you carry in that empathy for him. And I feel like the narrative is so gentle, almost delicate. I cannot imagine any fan of Brando’s feeling disappointed. I think the documentary was very respectful of the man’s character, if not necessarily his wish for privacy.

He was an intriguing person, and hearing his thoughts in his own words makes it clear that he did not struggle to communicate, he wasn’t quiet and withdrawn because of that. He was just a very inward facing guy, and had a lot of himself to see to. I think I would enjoy a dramatized biopic of his life even more than I did this documentary though, because it would feel more removed. 

For all that I walked in never having seen any of his work, I walked out of that theater with a definite urge to do so.

Read our other review this week: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation