Let the dead lie, they say. And this is a great rule to live by. Unless you’re Netflix, looking to make another true crime documentary to satiate the Shondaland crowd while compensating for the lack of actual good movies on your service. The salaciously titled The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes makes a case for being the most pointless waste of cloud storage ever created, in that it spends the entirety of its length selling a kooky conspiracy theory, only to morosely debunk it itself. In the film’s final moments, I almost expected somebody to leap out from behind the closing credits and yell, “Gotcha!”
The formula for these flimsy movies is now almost hilariously predictable—they seem to be glued together by slick visuals, ominous voiceovers and a great hook. In the case of The Unheard Tapes, it’s this: What if everything that you knew about Marilyn’s death was untrue, and that her passing from her was, in fact, a murder. Cue the gasps.
This is a particularly problematic rumor to fuel, if you consider what happened in our own country merely a couple of years ago. In June 2020, the actor Sushant Singh Rajput was found dead in the bedroom of his Mumbai house, having hung himself in an apparent suicide. At 34, he was just two years younger than Marilyn when she was allegedly found dead in her Hollywood home, having overdosed on barbiturates.
In the weeks and months following Rajput’s death, our nation’s youth united not against growing intolerance and the emerging pandemic, but in support of a conspiracy theory that suggested, based on nothing, that he was murdered. It was a sick symptom of collective boredom, of millions trapped in their own houses, desperate to stimulate their decaying minds while being fed drivel on the internet as a means of distraction from the real issues.
Marilyn died decades before it was possible for news to spread this quickly, but in many ways, the reaction to her passing was very similar, at least in fringe circles. And the fact that it continues to attract gossip mongers today is not only worrying, but also rather disturbing. Is our appetite for scandal this large? Have we really dehumanized celebrities to such a dangerous degree?
Marilyn had mental illnesses. The documentary quotes the psychiatrist who treated her in her final years as saying that she had a ‘tendency to paranoid reactions’. And despite this, The Unheard Tapes chooses to pursue 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 fine Louis Theroux documentaries to her credit. The subjects of those films were sometimes unsavory—child abuse, religious fanaticism—but the films themselves were always empathetic and endlessly curious. Which makes the conspiratorial tone of The Unheard Tapes, ostensibly about another victim of child abuse, all the more disappointing. It does no digging of its own, and relies entirely on writer Anthony Summers’ stockpile of telephone interviews, which he conducted for his book, Goddess, around three decades ago. Foreshadowing some of the methods prime time anchors would apply in their reporting of Rajput’s death, Summers chased ambulance drivers and casual acquaintances, old directors and personal assistants, as he gathered every sliver of information he could find. He even spoke to one person who is vaguely described as ‘a law enforcement informant’. What the heck is that?
A part of me would’ve admired an invasive, Nic Broomfield-style narrative. The controversial documentary ‘investigated’ a similar story back in 1998, when he suggested that Kurt Cobain did n’t kill himself, but that his wife Courtney Love had him assassinated (!). Like The Unheard Tapes, Kurt and Courtney also walked back on their own premise in its final moments, leaving you twiddling your thumbs at how shamelessly you’d been duped. I understand that this is a fool-me-twice situation now…
It will perhaps surprise you, as it did me, that the ‘tapes’ that this film makes a reference to in its title aren’t of Marilyn, but of others talking about her. Cooper recreates these recordings with fuzzy footage that looks like it was shot in a seedy motel and slapped with an Instagram filter. This isn’t as ethically iffy as director Morgan Neville’s decision to recreate Anthony Bourdain’s words using artificial intelligence, but it’s close.
I’m inclined to compare The Unheard Tapes to Searching for Sheela—a director-less 50 minute ‘documentary’ about Ma Anand Sheela that was little more than a cheese course for Netflix to recommend to viewers who’d just feasted on Wild Wild Country ; or potentially, director Shakun Batra’s now-shelved biopic on the controversial figure. With the already mythic Blonde on the way later this year—its director, the elusive Andrew Dominik, has pre-emptively declared it a ‘masterpiece’ and a ‘knockout’—don’t be surprised if you find The Unheard Tapes rattling about in your suggestions after you’re done with it.
The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes
director –Emma Cooper
Rating – 2/5