Sometime in the 1980s, Marlon Brando had his face digitized, presumably as a way of leaving just a bit more of himself after his departure from this planet. As we see it in Stevan Riley's documentary Listen to Me Marlon, that speaking, moving hologram looks like a cross between George Washington as engraved on the dollar bill and the solemn, glowing visage of Superman's dad, Jor-El — whom Brando played in 1978 — just before blasting his only son into space. The image is fuzzy and staticky around the edges, like a spirit trying to separate itself from the earthly world. Even so, this memorialization of self is also a trivialization of self. Brando uses his digitized face to tell us what the future has in store: "Actors are not going to be real," he says in voiceover. "They're going to be inside a computer. You watch."
We hear a lot of that voice — and see some more of that strange and beautiful digitization — in Listen to Me Marlon, a portrait of the actor assembled from film clips, stills, television interviews, dramatic re-creations, and, most significantly, more than 300 hours of recordings made by Brando himself. Brando was clearly a little obsessive about these tapes: Some, labeled "self-hypnosis," contain deeply personal observations that are unfiltered but also surprisingly cogent. Others constitute Brando's recollections of his childhood and early years as an actor. Late in his life, Brando had hoped to collate these observations into some sort of autobiographical multimedia work, a project that was never completed. (He died in 2004, at age 80. He published a memoir, Songs My Mother Taught Me, in 1994.) Riley — whose previous documentaries include the 2012 Everything or Nothing, an examination of the James Bond phenomenon — gives us the next best thing. The film he's made, a world apart from your usual straight-up biographical doc, features no talking heads other than Brando's own. Instead, it's like a tone poem drawn from the actor's inner and outer life, narrated by the man himself. There's nothing quite like it in the world of Hollywood documentaries, though Riley's presentation of this rich material is at times a little discomfiting.
Brando, one of the greatest actors of the last century — and some days, it's just easier to call him the greatest — has always been mysterious as a person. That's a polite way of saying that, particularly in the last 30 or so years of his life, he came off as kind of crazy. His imaginative, intuitive, bombshell performance as Vito Corleone in The Godfather almost didn't come to be: Though Francis Ford Coppola desperately wanted him for the part, Paramount executives thought Brando to be too unpredictable, too unreliable, too nuts. In Listen to Me Marlon he comes off, mostly, as more thoughtful than unhinged. He talks candidly about his childhood in Omaha, speaking affectionately of his mother ("She gave me a sense of the absurd") and less so of his father, a traveling salesman who was physically abusive. Ultimately, though, he reveals that both of them were alcoholics who failed to protect and nurture him. He found more security, of the emotional and financial sort, when he came to New York — "with holes in my socks and holes in my mind," he says — and began studying with Stella Adler, at the Actors Studio. Though her demeanor is imperious and imposing in the archival footage used in the film, Brando makes her kindness toward him clear: "Don't worry, my boy," she once told him. "I've seen you, and the world is going to hear from you."
She was right, of course, and the finest parts of Listen to Me Marlon are those in which he talks about the nuts, bolts, and the unnamable something that goes into the making of a performance. He uses boxer Jersey Joe Walcott, and his strategy of never letting his opponent know where the next punch was coming from, as a springboard: "Never let the audience know how it's gonna come out. Get them on your time . . . Hit 'em, knock 'em over, with an attitude, with a word, with a look. Be surprising. Figure out a way to do it that has never been done before . . . Damn, damn, damn, damn! When it's right, it's right. You can feel it in your bones. Then you feel whole. Then you feel good."
Listen to Me Marlon is a pointillist documentary, one that tells its story with thousands of tiny dots that we're left to connect ourselves. Brando talks, over footage of his kids gamboling in the surf, of why he was drawn to life in Tahiti; he speaks of his affection for his children, and his heartbreak over the suicide of his daughter, Cheyenne, in 1995. As he grew older, he succumbed to creeping paranoia, but it's hard to blame him: His son, Christian, was kidnapped in 1972 as part of a bizarre plot hatched by his ex-wife to secure full custody. In 1991 Christian was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison for the death of Dag Drollet, the then-boyfriend of half-sister Cheyenne.
There are places in Listen to Me Marlon where Riley manipulates the material a little too handily. He layers hyper-emotive music over film clips where it doesn't belong — neither the sequences themselves nor Brando's words need the extra help. And sometimes Riley takes a simplistic approach in applying Brando's life experience to his performances: We hear Brando speaking of his father's brutality as we watch his Stanley Kowalski pin Vivien Leigh's Blanche to the mattress in Streetcar. That's a reductive way of interpreting Stanislavski's system of method acting, as if it were simply a kind of therapy, a process by which you feed your life experience into a machine, turn a crank, and great performances come out. But Listen to Me Marlon is still an invaluable document, if only because it unlocks so many quiet secrets about this actor that we only think we know. Brando's deep insecurities, his nearly boundless sex drive, his civil rights activism: Listen to Me Marlon gives as full a picture of Brando as a 1,000-page biography might. This talking cure is more for us than it is for him.