Channelling a technique that worked so well for documentarian Julian Temple in Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, Stevan Riley presents a feature on the life of the treasured, luminous Hollywood star Marlon Brando, told in his own words. Yet again it’s proved to be a triumphant means of storytelling, with a narration from beyond the grave, as this ineffably cinematic production feels like a new Brando movie we’ve yet to experience.
Utilising hundreds of hours of audio the esteemed actor had recorded across his illustrious career, Riley has managed to find a narrative linearity, using the distinctive, dulcet tones of Brando to look back over a life that was as remarkable off camera as it was in front of it. The star of The Godfather and A Streetcar Named Desire had a tumultuous, if private, life off screen, as we chronicle a myriad of events, navigating our way through this man’s breathtaking existence.
It’s almost as though Brando recorded the audio with the intention of it one day being transformed into a feature film, such is his poetic verse and inclination to document all of his thoughts, and reactions. He is arguably the finest ever performer, with a charisma – and ability – unmatched by most. This remains a highly intimate piece, that shines a candid light into the world of somebody who was very private, and would keep himself away, for the most part, from the scrutinising eye of the media. When watching this narrative unfold you feel blessed to be hearing this, yet unlike the recent documentary on the life of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, for example, this doesn’t feel imposing nor voyeuristic. The latter would show footage you felt the subject may have had an aversion to being made public, but in this instance you feel as though Brando made these recordings with the sole purpose that one day they’d be released – and now they are.
When looking at the material from that perspective, this feels like quite the monumental task, an honour even, that has been bestowed upon Riley – awarded the job of collating this together and structuring it to perfection. It sounds like an easy task, as though the work has all been done for the filmmaker already, but the audio is only half of the job, and it takes a truly accomplished documentarian to seamlessly bring it all together. We don’t appear to miss out on anything either, examining all aspects of the actor’s livelihood – and yet it never feels as though Riley is merely ticking boxes, instead covering all areas with a minimum contrivance.
The only criticism seems somewhat pedantic, but it would just be that perhaps the title would have benefited from having subtitles to compliment the recordings. Some of the audio isn’t the best quality and with Brando’s deep, occasionally raspy voice speaking softly into the recorder, at times it can sound almost muffled, and you can struggle to make out exactly what he’s saying. And for a man who would speak in such a deliberate manner, it can be rather frustrating to say the least.