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Thoughts on “Listen to Me Marlon”

“Listen to Me Marlon” Showtime, 2015.

“Listen to Me Marlon” Showtime Films, 2015.

Last month I broke my own rule – only comment on storytelling that moves me in some positive way –  to write about what I see as a dangerous trend in documentary filmmaking: when unprecedented access to a subject veers into exploitation.  Just because filmmakers have “never before seen” footage, it doesn’t mean that they need to use all of it.  Exercising a little restraint is not only respectful of the subject matter, it makes for better storytelling.

In the case of “Montage of Heck” and “Amy,” documentaries about the downward spirals of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse respectively, I felt both films were irresponsible in their capitalization of tragedy.  With “Amy” in particular, the use of very disturbing self portraits left on Winehouse’s personal computer, crossed a line, in my opinion.  As I wrote earlier, I highly doubt that Winehouse would have wanted to share those private photos with anyone, much less the public at large. By including them, it was an invasion of her privacy, and it made me as an audience member complicit in that invasion.  I mention it now as a segue to another recent biographical film with unprecedented access that actually gets it right.

Listen to Me Marlon” is a biography of Marlon Brando, one of the most influential film actors of all time, as told uniquely in his own words.  Commissioned by Brando’s estate, director Stevan Riley had access to over 300 hours of audio tapes recorded by Brando himself over the course of his life.  Musings on his childhood, his conflicted feeling about acting and the business of Hollywood, his involvement in civil rights during the sixties, and later his desire to remove himself from the spotlight are woven together to create an intimate and layered portrait of the enigmatic man.  Though it’s not a perfect film, it is wildly creative with its use of animation, giving the effect of the actor speaking beyond the grave.  Brando recorded these audio tapes for the purpose of a future biography, so in a sense, this film, which was blessed by the family, is posthumously authorized.

“Listen to Me Marlon” is being shown now in select theaters in New York City and Los Angeles and will air on Showtime after its theatrical run.

Thoughts on “Montage of Heck” and “Amy”

Kurt Cobain  (Kevin Mazur/WireImage).         Amy Winehouse  (AP Photo/Matt Dunham).

Kurt Cobain (WireImage/Kevin Mazur). Amy Winehouse (AP Photo/Matt Dunham).

Let me begin by saying that music docs are my favorite form of story telling when they explore the creative process, the complicated dynamics among talented people, and how life influences the music.  “Some Kind of Monster” is a remarkable look at the inner workings of Metallica as the aging band records a new album and struggles with the pressure to exceed the expectations of their fans.  “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart” chronicles the making of the band Wilco’s fourth album and the subsequent break up of two long-time collaborators.  In my favorite film of all time, “Gimme Shelter,” the audience rides along with the Rolling Stones during their 1969 US tour and is not only privy to intimate moments in the studio with the band but also bears witness to the exact moment the free-loving hippie sixties ended.

That said, I’m having a problem with the alarming trend of posthumous documentaries about troubled artists.  Last week I watched both “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” from director Brett Morgen and “Amy” from director Asif Kapadia (who also did the terrific “Senna” doc in 2010) about Amy Winehouse.  Watching these films back-to-back, the paths of the two subjects are undeniably similar.  Both Cobain and Winehouse were extremely talented young artists who wrote songs that were intensely personal.  Both defined success as being able to play music for a living, and both shunned the media machine that thrust them in the spotlight.  Both suffered troubled childhoods and addictive personalities, and as a result, neither had the tools to properly insulate themselves from the stress of celebrity.  They both slid into the depths of drug abuse as a way to escape the clutches of public eye.  Tragically, both died at the age of 27.

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