Something Something Oranges Something
One of the consequences of Commander Bond taking up one of his extended residences in cinemas up and down the land is that it leaves the field wide open for any sort of counter-programming you care to mention. (This may be why a number of films about the everyday lives of older people appear to be incoming.) Still, as far as this sort of thing goes, you can't beat a good documentary, and currently making the most of a fairly limited release is Stevan Riley's Listen To Me Marlon.
Marlon! Do we even need to mention a surname? (Or, alternatively: Brando! Is the first name remotely in doubt?) It's this kind of instant recognition which tells us what a massive, iconic figure Marlon Brando was and remains (or, possibly, what a distinctively unusual pair of monickers he ended up lumbered with). Still, Brando's reclusiveness in the second half of his life means that while he is still well-known, he is little-understood. Riley's documentary sets out to rectify this, a bit.
The most immediately striking thing about this film is that it is the work of a lone voice – with the exception of a limited amount of archival soundtrack, the narration is almost wholly provided by Brando himself, drawn from the extensive audio tapes he recorded throughout his life. Most of the time this plays over film clips or publicity material, with a little specially-recorded footage, but occasionally a very primitive-looking CGI version of Brando's head manifests to lip-synch to whatever he's saying. This is a slightly creepy and unsettling choice, but not entirely inappropriate for what is by no means the happiest of stories.
Riley sets the scene with some references to the tragedies that blighted Brando's final years, before skipping back to see how the great man arrived in such sorry straits. His early life is skipped over to some extent, with the story beginning in earnest with his arrival in New York in the mid-1940s, his becoming an actor almost by accident, his studies under Stella Adler, and then his rise to acclaim and popular success, at first on stage and later in the cinema.
Hearing Brando himself talk about the power and value of great movie acting, over a montage of some of his greatest scenes, is terrific, but of course the film has a lot more material concerning his gradual disillusionment with the film industry and reputation for being impossible to work with. (Brando's fondness for having his lines given to him either by cue cards or via an earpiece is mentioned, though some of the more ludicrous anecdotes are not recycled.)
With most of the film being told in Brando's own words, the director can't directly come out and suggest what he thinks made Brando such a troubled individual – but he still does a pretty good job of putting Brando's difficult childhood in the frame, drawing attention to both his alcoholic mother and emotionally distant father. The end result of this seems to have been a deep-rooted sense of self-loathing in Brando himself – perhaps not just self-loathing, but also a deep disquiet with his own origins. The film spends some time exploring Brando’s love of Tahiti and its people, and his espousal of Native American rights (footage of the Oscars ceremony to which he dispatched a Native American representative to confuse Roger Moore and refuse his award appears), and personally I couldn’t help thinking that he was idealising these cultures, as they offered him a chance to completely remove himself from his own background.
While the film is not entirely without moments of levity – scenes of a publicity tour from the 50s, with Brando cheerfully hitting on every female journalist he encounters, have a definite if unreconstructed charm – this is ultimately really quite a bleak film. The film does not dwell overly on some of the professional indignities and embarrassments from the final years of Brando’s career, when he showed so little respect for his own talent, nor are the family tragedies he had to endure explored in too much detail – but one is left in little doubt as to the general tenor of his final years. (The film concludes with a clip from Brando's death scene from The Godfather, which struck me as a slightly less subtle choice than was perhaps ideal.)
Then again, one has to wonder, given the film-makers are setting out to tell a particular story, and are necessarily limited by their choice to rely almost exclusively on Brando’s own testimony for their narration – this isn’t by any means an objective account of his life. But, on the other hand, that same choice gives the film an undeniably intimate and personal quality – also, to be perfectly honest, a slightly dreamlike and oppressive quality, almost as if you’re spending 95 minutes inside Brando’s own psyche.
This movie is partly being marketed on the strength of its connections with Searching for Sugar Man, with which it shares a producer, but I have to say I found it rather less engaging and enjoyable. Nevertheless, it gives a considerable insight into a figure who still casts a long shadow, despite his later career arguably being a huge waste of potential. Worth seeing if you are interested in Brando and acting generally; the film-making talent on display is also pretty impressive, too.