There's not a whole lot left to be told in the story that is The Life of Marlon Brando. Like James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando is a subject of endless fascination, idolized since the Golden Age of Hollywood. Despite the actor's increasing reclusivity (until his death in 2004), people have always been curious about his private life. That was made especially clear after a recent trip to the bookstore, which was showcasing dozens of unauthorized Brando biographies—a surprisingly lucrative business.
Brando's rise to fame was written in the stars. Equipped with exceptionally good looks, he was also trained under the one and only Stella Adler, the acting coach who helped him hone his skill and later receive the well-deserved reputation of being the greatest actor to have ever lived. Watching Brando on the screen, it's hard not to be brought to tears by the sheer excellence of his craft. Perhaps that makes at least one thing easy for anyone trying to make a film about Brando: To a degree, any documentary about him can be saved by his mere presence on the screen.
In terms of visual footage and storytelling, Listen to Me Marlon, Showtime's new documentary on Brando, isn't particularly eye-opening. It's fairly standard in terms of chronology, with many of its stories already available on public record. What it does accomplish, though, is providing the most authoritative voice in the telling of his life story: Marlon Brando himself. Without using any other talking head, the Stevan Riley-directed film uses exclusive, never-before-heard audio recordings the actor left behind—some of which delve into stranger territory, like self-hypnosis, which he used to help him lose weight.
The format of the documentary will make viewers understandably wary: With a single narrator and all archival material approved by his estate (Brando Enterprises), Listen to Me could have kick-started another cycle of idolization with a narrow, one-sided perspective. Considering that all documentaries are somewhat subjective and this one is especially and inherently so, Listen to Me doesn't attempt to solely put the icon on the pedestal on which he already sits. Between revelations of his genius (how could you possibly downplay that?), the documentary uses Brando's weary admittance of fame, his not-so-secret love of women, and his sad digression to show a glimpse of the man he tried so hard to avoid becoming—his father. Clips of Brando hitting on female journalists isn't a good look for him; neither is the footage of his painful divorce, brought on by his playboy mentality.
Brando was far from perfect outside of his craft, but he was also oddly complicated; his political stance on Native American rights led him to refuse accepting an Oscar (he sent civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to give a speech in his place), and despite his dedication to acting, he became more and more of a pain in the ass to work with. And yet he managed to produce one of his best works in the latter half of his career (as Vito Corleone in The Godfather). But all great artists have been greatly complicated, and this film doesn't scramble to shift the blame away from Brando.
In his last few years, Brando's life story becomes really painful to watch: The private actor stepping back into the harsh tabloid light to deal with his son Christian, who was on trial for shooting the boyfriend of his half-sister, Cheyenne. No one deserves that kind of pain in their life, but Brando was neither the best parent nor the best husband, and watching the consequences of some of his life choices is, at times, unbearable. Brando's life hasn't always been precious, even in his glory days, but the later years are especially heartbreaking.
Through its ups and downs, Listen to Me, at its core, is a gift for the fans. It's like an audiobook for the cinephiles and Brando lovers—almost like a bedtime story from Brando himself. It's a much more personal entry into his life than any unauthorized biography and the result is a touching, first-person look into the life of a legend.