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Listen To Me Marlon: London Film Festival Movie Review

Employing the same technique as Senna (2010) and Amie (2015), documentary Listen To Me Marlon uses old recordings of its deceased subject to narrate the picture.

Marlon Brando was an acting phenomenon, a cultural icon, an activist and most importantly an enigma.

Filmmaker Stevan Riley and his team utilised hundreds of audio tapes which the Godfather actor recorded himself talking about his long career, his childhood and his most intimate thoughts.

When director Riley approached the Brando estate and explained he wanted to make a movie which was honest in its portrayal of its subject, he was given free reign to all of the Hollywood legend's materials.

The film uses a computerised head of Brando, at the start and end of the film, resulting in the actor being brought back to life. There is one recording where Marlon discusses having his head digitally scanned in the 1990s and how he believes that real actors could be replaced by computers in the future.

But it is the past which this film is concerned about - and Brando is as complex and interesting a documentary subject which Riley could have ever hoped to explore.

His childhood, which has touched upon in Last Tango In Paris, was violent and unloving. His father was a drunk and a "bar fighter" who used to beat the young Marlon and his mother for "no good reason".

Brando says that when he had to be angry on screen or stage all he would have to do was think of his father beating his mother in a drunken rage. And even more painfully, Brando's mother was also afflicted with alcoholism, and was "the town drunk".

Brando says that he became a good actor from an early age, pretending to act a certain way to contrive his parents love or to avoid being stuck with his father's fist.

When he went to New York, he would sit at the window of a cigar shop, which was situated on a busy street corner, and watch strangers go by - analysing their facial expressions and watching them act and wondering what they were trying to hide.

He studied under method acting pioneer Stella Adler who taught him about searching for truth in his performance and being real while the rest of American actors were still being overly dramatic.

Indeed Brando had an amazing opportunity - he could see that the future of acting and cinema was realism and that he had the talent and charisma to start a revolution.

Following his roles in A Street Car Named Desire (1951) and On The Waterfront (1954) – for the latter picture he received his first Oscar - Brando quickly grew tired of fame although his fascination with acting and people never wavered.

He became involved with the civil rights movement which was met with hyperbolic criticism and even death threats from conservative half of America. Driven by his terrible childhood and particularly his poor relationship with his father, Brando said he hated "people stepping on others".

His movie choices in the 1960s were largely poor and his reputation's rapid decline was cemented by the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), from director Carol Reed, which was a critical and commercial flop.

But the picture's poor showing at the box-office was only part of the story. The production was riddled with infighting, and involved actual punch-ups on set between Brando and other crew members. The actor contends that he was not treated fairly by the director - but in any case the press reported stories of Brando's petulant behaviour which was backed up by the studio and the director. He was branded difficult - a label which stayed with him for the rest of his career.

Mutiny was in many ways one of the most influential films of his career. As the then 38-year-old star fell in love with Tahiti, the lifestyle and the people, quite literally.

And of course what happened next is one of the most famous comebacks in movie history. It started when director Francis Ford Coppola cast him as an aging mafia boss in the seminal The Godfather (1972). However, Coppola had to fight studio Paramount Pictures to get Brando in the film, because of the star's troubled reputation.

Paramount insisted on a screen test, something Brando said he felt insulted by - but at that stage of his career, he knew he needed to take the opportunity of working on a big studio picture.

And the rest is history - the movie grossed around £280 million worldwide and is still widely considered to be one of the best films of all time.

Brando completed his professional one-two punch with Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango In Paris (1972), which was an explosive and daring art house picture which cemented Brando's standing as one of the greatest actors of all time.

But controversy was never far away from the actor. Arguably the most infamous incident of his career was when he rejected his second Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather at the 1973 Academy Awards.

And to the astonishment of the star studded audience when Brando's name was read out, Sacheen Littlefeather, an American Indian activist, dressed in traditional clothing, took to the stage and rejected the prestigious award on his behalf, stating that it was in protest to the treatment of American Indians by the film industry.

Now before I heard Brando's explanation for this 'stunt' in the documentary - I always assumed it was Marlon at his dysfunctional best.

However, he explained in a television interview soon after that everything America, and the wider Western world, had been taught about American Indians through cinema was wrong. Despite this being a radical move at the time, it is now accepted that a veritable apartheid was waged on the indigenous population of the US and that they were not the blood thirsty villains portrayed by Hollywood.

Brando was an incredibly single minded person and while you may not agree with the way he delivered his message - few now would argue with its sentiment.

The actor then spoke about his work on Apocalypse Now (1979) on which he reunited with Coppola and was once again branded a petulant irritant.

However it is accepted that Apocalypse was a troubled production well before Brando joined for the final third of filming - it is after all the one of the most ambitious movies ever made.

And according to the actor, he tried to help the beleaguered filmmaker by rewriting the script and developing his character. Brando felt particularly aggrieved by Coppola's public criticism about him afterwards. 

Brando was an incredibly sensitive man who would call Coppola an a--hole on one tape, and say that he loved him on the other. And it was this incredible sensitivity that made him a great actor - something which he himself continually acknowledged.

He spoke about the millions he was paid for Superman (1978) for 12 days work, and how after the Apocalypse experience he essentially acted for money, not even bothering to learn his lines, instead preferring to stick a cue card on the other actor's head, or use an ear piece and have the words read to him.

Brando's biggest regret was his failure as a father to his many children.

In 1990, his his son Christian shot and killed Brando's Tahitian-born daughter Cheyenne's boyfriend, Dag Drollet.

After a lengthy trial in which Brando gave evidence, Christian was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Cheyenne committed suicide in 1995 after never recovering from the death of her lover.

These tragic events hit Brando, who was in his 70s when his daughter took her own life, like an emotional pile driver.

His troubled childhood was the defining part of his life - there was no way that someone who was beaten and abused, receiving almost no love and affection, could handle that kind of fame, adulation and money in any rational way.

Listen to me Marlon is an incredibly intimate insight into a hugely complex individual – it will be released later this year.

Five out of five stars.

Here is the trailer: