Review: ‘Mystery of Marilyn Monroe’ sensationalizes instead of sharing something new

Nearly 60 years after her death, the memory of Marilyn Monroe continues to compel filmmakers to search for new insights.

From the theatrical film “My Week with Marilyn” ten years ago to a recent CNN series, fascination with how this actress lived and died continues to fuel the search for explanation. While the latest documentary, “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes,” may only offer a few new suggestions, it does give us one more chance to celebrate the magic that Monroe created on screen.

Film Summary: The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes

Content: Medium. As a tribute to the magic of Marilyn Monroe, this new documentary covers familiar topics; as an exploration of new insight into her death, the film inconsistently supports its point of view.

Entertainment: Medium. With a rare collection of audio recordings, the film takes us back to a time when the public was fascinated with how Monroe lived and died.

Message: Medium. Anyone who remembers this actress on screen, and cherishes her performances, will find the movie interesting without offering an ultimate explanation.

Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to remember such an icon can be welcome.

Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. You and your fellow film buffs may enjoy this film for its entertainment value if not its investigative effectiveness.

What separates this project from others is the use of actual audio recordings. But this doesn’t quite work. Rather than follow a traditional documentary approach – such as playing the audio as background while still photos fill the screen – moviemaker Emma Cooper chooses to stage sequences where actors, playing people in Monroe’s past, lip sync to actual dialogue. While this approach gives the film a variety of visuals, it’s a bit odd to hear recognizable voices – of, say, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and John Houston – while watching actors who bear little resemblance. Though creative, this approach ultimately undermines the credibility of Cooper’s assertions about Monroe.

Before Cooper reveals her opinions of what may have happened when Marilyn died, she takes us on a tour of Monroe’s career, marriages and personal challenges. We again see images we often associate with this iconic star, from her early film appearance in Houston’s “The Asphalt Jungle” to her musical performances in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” to her classic comedy portrayals in “The Seven Year Itch” and “Some Like it Hot.” We also revisit her marriages to Joe Dimaggio and Arthur Miller, with scenes from the ceremony at the Stonehenge Inn in Ridgefield, before reliving the drama behind her final screen appearances in “The Misfits” and the never-finished “Something’s Got to Give.”

As the story progresses, Cooper tightens her focus on Monroe’s relationships with John and Robert Kennedy. While recorded comments initially sound innocent, the filmmaker soon unleashes recordings where people speculate what may have happened within this unlikely trio. While the accusations may create drama, they don’t consistently enlighten, leaving us with a sense of the sensational rather than a better understanding of Monroe’s demise. It’s an opportunity missed.

No matter the limitations of this film, rest assured there will be others. No matter how much we may savor the chance to relive Monroe’s magic on screen, what happened off screen continues to intrigue. As long as people care about Marilyn Monroe, movies will try to tell us more.

“The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” is rated TV-MA, runs 1 hour and 41 minutes, and is streaming on Netflix.