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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Songs My Father Taught Me
by Donald Levit

Alongside a limited range of topics that showcase violence or violation, documentaries nowadays gravitate towards celebrities, preferably troubled ones. Eleven years after the most magnetic of actors’ death, Listen to Me Marlon does what it says. That is, this Sundance and MoMA-Lincoln Center New Directors/New Films favorite axes the usual talking heads that, as with lab-coated impersonators endorsing toothpaste or over-the-counter remedies, people assume are “real” instead of the “lie” that Brando labels acting. In their stead, director/writer/editor Stevan Riley lets his publically reticent subject speak for himself.

Over the years on over three hundred hours of sound recordings and visuals, the actor documented his personal spiritual diary, his decline and death forestalling an intention to do his own audio-film biography. The current filmmaker was granted access to these audio tapes and notes by the estate, then hunted down hundreds of media interviews worldwide, gathered clips from memorable or forgettable movies and found rare, sometimes family photographs and previously unseen material.

Bridging gaps as sort of narrator and Shakespeare quoter is the digitalized face that Brando commissioned of himself, here 3D stylized and animated. To avoid over-using the five incomplete, flyaway, weirdly upsetting heads from beyond the grave, the film at times resorts to useless brownish images of upholstery, inferentially but not necessarily from the Mulholland Drive house that, warning signage to the contrary, looks vulnerable and is the opening scene of police activity when, in May 1990, alcoholic first son Christian killed pregnant suicidal half-sister Cheyenne’s boyfriend, and reclusive Marlon’s life unraveled in a fishbowl.

Six years later, one of the tapes hand-labeled “self-hypnosis” begins with the actor’s voice giving what becomes this film’s title, remarking that one part of his personality is henceforth going to address another part and advising himself to relax, not to fear, and to listen to what it claims is “truth.”

Dazzled -- as who would not be? -- by immense early success, the man behind the raspy voice fully and frequently credits Stella Adler though often enough famously denigrating acting while at other moments giving tips as to how to do the convincing falsehood that is its basis. Indeed, near the end, he treats the profession seriously, as reflected for example in his anger with “Frank” Coppola for that director’s mishandling and misunderstanding of Coronel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

The many women attracted by his charisma and “aphrodisiac” fame are usually exotic and given short shrift -- “hardly more than a couple of minutes with any of them” -- while longtime “Puerto Rican delegate” Rita Moreno is not even whispered, nor is five-years-older actress sister Jocelyn. Nor is Brando’s dual sexuality broached.

Several references are made to an unhappy small-town Nebraska upbringing and schooling, with too many stills of a two-storey house on the prairie. Nevertheless, a recurring theme is adoration of his alcoholic, abused, mentally fragile, local playhouse actress mother and his conflicted feelings about an alcoholic, abusive, salesman father with whom, for public consumption and in ways in actuality, he later comes to terms and whom he admits to resembling.

The love affair with Tetioroa atoll and Tahiti, idealization of its guileless people and culture, is included and also the sincere but purposely low-key involvement with civil rights for Native and African Americans. Many hours spent with and thousands of dollars spent on psychoanalysts are dismissed as having proved useless. But it does not appear that these revelatory tapes of self-analysis brought peace, either, or enlightenment to the man or that they will bring an understanding of him to the viewer of LtMM. Intelligent, curious, contradictory, “I searched but never found what I was looking for [in] a glamorous life but completely unfulfilling one.” The intriguing hour and two-thirds gives the lie to Brando’s elsewhere “I had come full circle, and I felt free”: this is another fib, for, to the end, he “would call [Moreno] and whisper, ‘I miss you.’” With another actor of a different political stripe, he might wonder, “Where’s the rest of me?”

Arguably it was this loneliness, this confusion in the soul, that made him so compelling as a man and so charismatic when he was an actor.

(Released by Showtime; not rated by MPAA.)

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