Existing in the marginal space between conspiracy Twitter-thread and National Enquirer article, Emma Cooper’s Marilyn Monroe Netflix doc, the unwieldy “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes,” is a 100-minute rehashing of Anthony Summers’ 1985 book “Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe.” Updated little since that book was published almost four decades ago, Cooper’s doc plays out like mad libs for the conspiracy-minded. Throw together the Kennedys, Jimmy Hoffa, and a number of benign taped conversations with bit-players in Monroe’s life, and you have a documentary less about Monroe and more an unintentional meta-commentary on how tabloid journalism has been given the veneer of respectability by streamers desperate for content.
While some may glean interest from hearing the likes of Jane Russell and Billy Wilder talk about Monroe, the information they provide is anything but revelatory and, odder still, their stories are presented through a series of staged reenactments in which actors lip-synch to conversations. It’s a profoundly weird formal choice that, if anything, at least holds interest for its unintended hilarity, as we hear private investigators drone on about the conspiracy to silence Monroe because she probably knew about America’s nuclear secrets — which sounds like a joke but, I promise, is actually a very real investigative thread that Cooper and co. dive into.
Organized around interviews with Summers as he recounts his research and composition for ‘Goddess,’ the ‘unheard tapes’ feature Summers talking to various people in Monroe’s orbit. These conversations are somewhat interesting, but just as often gossipy accounts of Monroe’s relationships with various famous men. While this information might be compelling enough within a (more interesting) film that branched off from Summers, contextualizing his book within the larger discourse of Monroe narratives after her death — ‘The Unheard Tapes’ is too enamored with Summers and his purported revelations to dive into the implications of so many seeking to profit off of her life.
As a result, Summers is really the subject of ‘Unheard Tapes’ as he goes on, ad nauseam, about the “bombshells” that he discovered. Some of those threads are legitimately interesting speculation — especially concerning Monroe’s final hours and questions surrounding where, and when, she really died. But, Cooper’s film also goes on a series of bewildering flights of fancy, as Summers tries to connect Bobby Kennedy’s relationship to Monroe to his investigation into Jimmy Hoffa. It’s all a bit ridiculous and, honestly, the film feels quickly cobbled together in an effort of corporate synergy, lest we forget that Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde” is coming to the streamer later this year. What other reason would Netflix have for digging up ‘Goddess,’ and Summers himself, to rehash information that’s been available since the Reagan era?
While the documentary offers little information that could be considered new, every so often Monroe’s actual life shines through the nonsense. This is particularly true in the sections diving into her marriages with Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, and the possible reasons that she was attracted to two men who, on the surface, couldn’t be more opposite.
But, on the whole, the human element of Monroe’s life is lost in a sea of wild conjecture. Who she was as a person, and why she entered into these relationships is subsumed by a frustrating web of conspiracies. Further, Summers doesn’t make for the most tantalizing subject — his work has almost always skirted the line between legitimate research and exploitation. The biographical and fictional afterlives of Monroe are particularly interesting, and probably tell us more about the authors who choose to dedicate their lives to researching her than anything new about Monroe, herself. One wishes that Cooper, and Summers, would’ve realized this. [D]