“Actors are not going to be real. They’re going to be inside a computer. You watch.”
That’s Marlon Brando speaking in the opening moments of the documentary “Listen to Me Marlon.”
To be clear: It’s the sound of Brando on an audiotape recorded several years before his death in 2004, then synced to a 3-D-animated version of his head that moves its lips as if Brando is talking.
This CGI image — conjured from a digital version of the actor’s face created in the 1980s — is disconcerting. From certain angles, it resembles George Washington. From others, it looks like Max Headroom. Most of the time, it looks completely like Brando. It’s as if the father of modern movie acting had returned to share his thoughts from inside a computer, just as he promised, or perhaps from some mysterious beyond.
That’s the magic trick that filmmaker Stevan Riley, who wrote, directed and edited “Listen to Me Marlon,” pulls off in this stream-of-consciousness portrait of the most influential screen actor of all time. Riley doesn’t merely make a fine nonfiction film about the life and legacy of the late conflicted artist. He virtually resurrects him.
Wisely, “Listen to Me Marlon” relies sparingly on that digitized talking head. It also completely avoids the kind of talking-head interviews normally found in documentaries. Instead, Riley blows up the standard doc format, allowing some of the more than 200 hours of uncovered personal audiotapes to shape the film’s narrative.
This is not a biography of Brando so much as a journey inside his addled, beautiful mind. Many of the cassettes Brando recorded were labeled as “self-hypnosis.” The effect of listening to Brando in a contemplative state while old home movies, media interviews and evocative stock footage flash by is hypnotic for the audience, too.
For cinephiles seeking perspective on Brando from Brando himself, there is plenty. Of Stanley Kowalski, the combustible abuser he played in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the actor says: “I hate that kind of guy. I absolutely hate that person and I couldn’t identify with that.”
Of his work in “On the Waterfront,” which resulted in his first Academy Award: “When I saw the picture finally, I was so embarrassed by my performance.” Of “The Godfather,” he says his screen test for the movie that reignited his career was “demeaning,” but “I needed a part at that time.”
He also accuses Bernardo Bertolucci of stealing “too much personal” material from him vis-à-vis his performance in “Last Tango in Paris,” and he criticizes Francis Ford Coppola for publicly acknowledging that Brando was both overweight and difficult during the production of “Apocalypse Now.” (The specific words Brando calls the director cannot be printed in this newspaper.)
As defensive and self-deprecating as he can be — he admits to sometimes having his lines fed to him via an earpiece — Brando also speaks about the satisfaction he derived from his actorly instinct to try the unexpected. “You want to stop that movement of the popcorn to the mouth,” he says. “Get people to stop chewing.”
Later in his life, Brando became better known as an eccentric recluse, the butt of fat jokes and a man with family problems, all of which, according to “Listen to Me Marlon,” caused him enormous suffering. He begins one self-hypnosis session by soothingly telling himself to “think of all the good things that you like, like apple pie and ice cream and brownies and milk. But you must eat them not quite so often.”
Though Brando does not speak with particular directness about his children, Riley includes footage from the media-circus trial of his son Christian Brando, who was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of the boyfriend of his half-sister, Cheyenne (who later committed suicide). This is held up as the ultimate example of Brando’s personal pain, turned into paparazzi fodder.
“I’ve had a hard year,” we hear Brando say as home movies of a once-happy Cheyenne flicker past. “Really harder than you could possibly imagine.”
Is Brando alluding to the year of his son’s murder trial, the year that Cheyenne died, or some other year altogether? It’s unclear. Riley compresses the timeline of certain events — including the 1990 trial, and Cheyenne’s 1995 death — using the audio as commentary in ways that may slightly distort reality. But this documentary doesn’t seek to objectively explain what actually happened when Marlon Brando was alive; some of those talking-head interviews with people who actually knew the man would help, if that had been the film’s goal.
Instead, it’s a thoroughly subjective and effective attempt to capture how it must have felt to be Marlon Brando. At one point, Brando half-jokes that after he dies, he will have “a special microphone” placed in his coffin so that he can speak from six feet under. After watching “Listen to Me Marlon,” one might be justified in thinking that, in a way, he made good on that promise.
(At the Glenwood Arts, Tivoli.)
‘LISTEN TO ME MARLON’
Not rated | Time: 1:35