This is a gunky movie, a creepy attempt at an art-house docu-biopic. Even its methods are morbid — director Stevan Riley, who made the fine James Bond documentary Everything or Nothing, got hold of hours of audiocassette tapes Marlon Brando left behind, a combination of talking journals and self-motivating pep talks. Riley also discovered that Brando’s face had been scanned and digitized, so the filmmakers were able to sync and construct a psychedelic version of Brando “reading” the tapes, like Max Headroom from beyond the grave. This is actually the good part of the movie, though.
What’s disturbing is the sordid way Riley framed the life. We know Brando’s life courted deep tragedies and astonishing triumphs, and not all of it was onscreen. But Riley’s movie begins and ends at Brando’s Los Angeles compound, the site of two disasters involving his children, and then cuts to the man himself weeping. When you begin and end like this, it’s hard to credit the considerable genius Brando displayed, roles that defined the history of cinema: stevedore, motorcycle delinquent, Nazi soldier, Mafia don, Superman’s dad, Colonel Kurtz, and more. Even though that’s all chronicled here, it feels too deeply lost in shadows. One of the high points of the footage Riley grabbed was a television interview with a beautiful woman that Brando turned into a seduction. Every charming aspect is turned sleazy.
You could argue that any good Brando profile would come to this conclusion. But Riley hasn’t built a nuanced newsreel here as much as a tabloid autopsy. There are invigorating moments — the A Streetcar Named Desire scenes and discussions where Brando airily dismisses Francis Ford Coppola and Bernardo Bertolucci. But the documentary feels superficial and leaves out so much (his directorial one-shot One-Eyed Jacks, for instance). For all that, Marlon is still an opportunity to spend some weird time — as usual — with the greatest cinematic actor ever. Even though it might make you feel crummy afterward, you shouldn’t miss it.