Recently I’ve realised that I’m drawn to documentaries that are recognisant of their own failure – that is, the failure of the documentary as a factual medium. Which means that Listen to Me, Marlon, a biographical doco on Marlon Brando told largely through his own hitherto-unheard personal recordings, answering machine messages and the like, was right up my alley.
You see, from its opening moments, where a Brando recounts the “digitalisation” of his image (presumably for Donner’s Superman), Stevan Riley’s film recognises that a complete, ‘honest’ portrait of Brando – or anyone, really – is impossible. Rather, he collects together a contradictory, fictionalised, mythologised Brando, whose self-reflections are regularly undermined or refuted by archival footage. Brando regularly speaks of being a conman, and you eventually sense that his greatest achievement as an actor is the way in which he has created himself.
It’s somewhat of a shame, then, that Riley squanders this potent approach by cobbling these materials together into a fairly linear, fairly conventional narrative. He hits the major beats in Brando’s lifestyle – his early success, his family troubles, his notable films, his politics – without adopting the same thoughtful, borderline-radical approach he takes to the form of the film. Still great, though.