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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.