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Review by Generoso Fierro
Produced by John Battsek, RJ Cutler, George Chignell
Written by Stevan Riley, Peter Ettedgui
Directed by Stevan Riley
Starring Marlon Brando

A few years ago while selecting films for the European Short Film Festival, we came across a short entitled A Story For The Modlins, about the family of Elmer Modlin, a film extra who occupied about ten seconds of screen time in the background of the Roman Polanski classic, Rosemary’s Baby.

The narrative of this experimental documentary from Spain was created out of a box of discarded items found outside the apartment of Modlins.

Cleverly using their letters, photos, and even a very artistically disturbing VHS tape, director Sergio Oksman imaginatively weaved together a story for a group of people who had not had a public story despite their many attempts at fame.

I was thrilled by this short doc as it used the medium of film to give a posthumous notoriety to a group of reclusive unknowns. 

Hardly an unknown, but no less reclusive, no matter how much he wanted it that way was the life of screen of actor Marlon Brando. The stuff of legends, Brando was dubbed the “best screen actor in film history” in his twenties, a media created claim that he spent most of his life refuting in the endless audio tapes that he left behind in his home that have been reassembled by director Stevan Riley.

Somewhat like the Modlins doc, the only talking head (figuratively) is Brando who is heard through the tapes he left behind which are sometimes spoken through a borderline creepy digitally created head that Brando modeled for in the short years before his passing. The audio tapes reveal a Brando rarely seen in public as he recalls his abusive upbringing, his love for his drama teacher, Stella Adler, who introduced Brando to the Stanislavski System, Brando’s feelings towards his craft, the women he dabbled in, and his children who would inevitably bring him the greatest torment of his life. These audio tapes are essential in understanding the inner workings of Marlon Brando, and I, for one, am glad to have finally heard them, regardless of the success or failure of their presentation.

Though I appreciate the amount of time that must’ve been spent listening to the hours of open confessions by Brando and the choice of any bio documentary in this day and age that doesn’t overwhelm you with an endless line of celebrity interviews, the loose editing and novelty visual gimmicks that director Riley chose to use alongside Marlon’s own voice diminishes the pathos of much of what is being said, and thus, the entire film unfortunately becomes more of an exercise in style and less of a poignant and insightful look into the mind of a masterful artist.

To add further detraction from the rich content in the tapes, the sometimes overwhelmingly melancholic music supervised by Gary Welch also goes a long way into deflating the edge off of many a scene that should bring you closer to the subject of Brando. 

Sadly, unlike the Modlins film that more successfully utilized the media that it was given in a concise way and made you care about the people involved, what you are left with in Listen To Me Marlon is a document that gives you no empathy towards Brando’s life story and elicits little more than just curiosity from the viewer.

Considering the popularity of radio programs such as Serial, perhaps the best treatment for such valuable archival materials like Brando’s tapes would have been a series of curated radio programs that would’ve stripped away layers of unneeded flash and allowed the voice of one of America’s finest actors to affect audiences more directly.

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