Let the dead lie, they say. And this is a great rule to live by. Unless you’re Netflix and looking to make another true crime documentary to sate the Shondaland crowd while making up for the lack of good real movies on your service. The salaciously titled The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes argues that it is the most pointless cloud storage waste ever created, as it spends its entire length peddling a wacky conspiracy theory, only to sulkily debunk it. In the final moments of the movie, I half expected someone to come out from behind the end credits and yell, “Gotcha!”
The formula for these flimsy movies now it’s almost hilariously predictable: they seem to be tied together by clever visuals, ominous voiceovers, and a great hook. In the case of The Unheard Tapes, it’s this: What if everything you knew about Marilyn’s death wasn’t true and her death was, in fact, murder? Cue the gasps.
This is a particularly troublesome rumor to feed, considering what happened in our own country just a couple of years ago. In June 2020, actor Sushant Singh Rajput was found dead in the bedroom of his home in Mumbai, hanging himself in an apparent suicide. At 34, he was only two years Marilyn’s junior when she was allegedly found dead in her Hollywood home, overdosing on barbiturates.
In the weeks and months following the Rajput’s death, the youth of our nation rallied not against growing intolerance and the emerging pandemic, but in support of a conspiracy theory that suggested, without any basis, that he was assassinated. It was a sick symptom of collective boredom, of millions of people stuck in their own homes, desperate to stimulate their decaying minds as they fed on Internet nonsense as a distraction from the real issues.
Marilyn died decades before it was possible for news to spread so quickly, but in many ways the reaction to her passing was much the same, at least in fringe circles. And the fact that she continues to attract gossip mongers today is not only worrying, but unsettling. Is our appetite for scandal that great? Have we really dehumanized celebrities to such a dangerous degree?
Marilyn was mentally ill. The documentary quotes the psychiatrist who treated her in her last years as saying that she had a “tendency for paranoid reactions”. And despite this, The Unheard Tapes chooses to go with the conspiracy angle. In Marilyn’s case, the documentary strongly suggests, the Rhea Chakraborty figure was none other than Bobby Kennedy.
Surprisingly, this film is directed by Emma Cooper, who has many excellent Louis Theroux documentaries under her belt. The themes of those movies were sometimes off-putting (child abuse, religious fanaticism), but the movies themselves were always empathetic and endlessly curious. Which makes the conspiratorial tone of The Unheard Tapes, apparently about yet another child abuse victim, all the more disappointing. He does not investigate on his own and relies entirely on writer Anthony Summers’ booking of phone interviews, which he conducted for his book Goddess, some three decades ago. Foreshadowing some of the methods prime-time anchors would apply to reporting on the Rajput death, Summers hunted down ambulance drivers and casual acquaintances, former managers and personal assistants, while gathering whatever information he could find. He even spoke with a person loosely described as “a law enforcement informant.” What the hell is that?
A part of me would have admired an invasive narrative in the style of Nic Broomfield. The controversial documentarian ‘investigated’ a similar story back in 1998, when he suggested that Kurt Cobain did not commit suicide, but that his wife Courtney Love had him killed (!). Like The Unheard Tapes, Kurt and Courtney also returned to its own premise in its final moments, leaving you wondering how blatantly you had been duped. I understand this is a fool me twice situation now…
It may surprise you, as it did me, that the ‘tapes’ this movie refers to in its title are not Marilyn’s, but others talking about her. Cooper recreates these footage with blurry footage that appears to have been shot in a seedy motel and slapped with an Instagram filter. This isn’t as ethically dubious as director Morgan Neville’s decision to recreate the words of Anthony Bourdain using artificial intelligence, but it’s close.
I’m inclined to compare The Unheard Tapes to Searching for Sheela, a 50-minute directorless ‘documentary’ about Ma Anand Sheela that was little more than a cheese course for Netflix to recommend to viewers who had just feasted on Wild Wild Country. ; or potentially, director Shakun Batra’s now shelved biopic about the controversial figure. With the now-mythical Blonde on the way later this year (its director, the elusive Andrew Dominik, has preemptively declared it a “masterpiece” and a “knockout”), don’t be surprised if you find The Unheard Tapes rattling on your suggestions once you’re done.
The Marilyn Monroe Mystery: The Unheard Tapes
director –Emma Cooper
Classification – 2/5