Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind” has been in post-production limbo for decades, and with time it became the golden unicorn of his filmography, a final potential masterpiece that remained uncompleted at the time of the rapscallion’s death. While Netflix stepped up to finish the project decades later, Welles’ experimental, semi-autographical drama about a washed-up filmmaker requires a fair amount of context for anyone except diehard Welles fans, especially if it’s expected to appeal to viewers on an international platform.
Enter “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” documentarian Morgan Neville’s endearing, playful overview of the false starts and sudden roadblocks that marred the production as Welles’ rocky career sped toward its conclusion. In effect, Neville has given the movie the prequel it deserves.
One one level, “The Other Side of the Wind” served as Welles’ cinematic autobiography. While he’d engaged with some aspects of his personal history in the brilliant 1973 essay film “F For Fake,” his final project incorporated more explicit details about his current conundrum, and Neville’s bountiful cast of talking heads break down the details.
By the end of the ’60s, the rush of New Hollywood counterculture held up Welles as its hero, the grandaddy of filmmakers willing to buck the system. “The Last Picture Show” director Peter Bogdonavich obsessed over Welles, first as a journalist and then as a breakout talent, and Welles cast him in “The Other Side of the Wind” as a fictionalized version of exactly that. For his own role in this story, the director cast a similarly wizened John Huston, playing a washed-up director attempting to make one last masterpiece in the twilight of his career. That movie, a highbrow project called “The Other Side of the Wind,” unfolds as a film-within-a-film starring Bob Random, which allowed Welles to deliver a cheeky indictment of ‘60s European art films while advancing his own creative obsessions in the process.
It’s a classic Wellesian conceit, at once prankish, innovative and personal, but so much of Welles’ history has been relegated to scholarly texts that it’s a thrill to see this final chapter laid out with such clarity and charm. Neville excels at merging archival footage and talking heads into a zippy format whether he’s dealing with Mr. Rogers (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) or backup singers (“Twenty Feet From Stardom”), and that skill is especially visible here. The movie’s a bit too dense with clips and random cutaways, but the decision to film the interviews in black-and-white while filling much of the running time with ample “Other Side of the Wind” footage means that the messy project can take center stage while the surviving collaborators receive their own context as custodians of history.
The movie has some hokey devices that reek of attempts to win over new viewers, chief among them a recurring use of Alan Cumming as an on-camera host. Neville tries to stuff in virtually every little trivial detail about the project and Welles’ life as a whole, to the point where the movie has a tendency to play like a special feature to contextualize the restoration and not a movie in its own right.
Nevertheless, as special features go, it’s a cut above. “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” tracks the production from the late ’60s all the way through Welles’ death in 1985. The saga really soars when unearthing the sheer anarchy of Welles’ set, described by one survivor as “a circus of scattered souls.” Bogdonavich, whose own career collapsed around the time of Welles’ death, emerges as a wistful figure in a sea of contempt for Welles’ anarchic style. He’s complemented by the remarkable history of Gary Graver, the softcore porn cameraman who saw “The Other Side of the Wind” as his ticket to a highbrow status, so much that he carried a canister of film from the project around for years after Welles’ death.
There’s enough footage from the unfinished production to make the case for Welles’ innovative spirit lingering in every moment of his movie, including a shocking sex sequence featuring his partner Oja Kodar and a lengthy party scene with cameos from some of the greatest filmmakers alive at the time. Netflix viewers who start with “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” are likely to give the Welles restoration a shot, especially once they realize just how much Welles endured while attempting to lock picture. Neville’s documentary scans it all: the abrupt departure of producer Andrzej Gomez, who financed the bulk of the project; a lawsuit with Iranian investors hobbled by that country’s sudden revolution; a last-ditch attempt to beg for money that forced the director to turn a lifetime achievement award speech into a fundraising gig.
It’s a sad, ludicrous, and ultimately touching story, one that inevitably requires an assessment of Welles as a whole. The movie skims through his troubled childhood and the curse of making “Citizen Kane” at the age of 25, setting expectations impossibly high for the rest of his life as he was increasingly exiled from Hollywood. One peer describes “Wind” as “the bookend to ‘Kane,’” the final puzzle piece in a life of fragmented visions that also included unreleased curiosities like “It’s All True” and “The Dreamers.”
But now, at least, the bookend is complete. We’ll never be able to fully process Welles’ artistry with every nuance intact, but “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” is a testament to the rewarding process of looking for the big picture in the master’s career. Some of Neville’s subjects argue against the theory that Welles never actually wanted to finish his projects. Whether or not that’s true, “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” proves his success at turning the act of creation into a victory itself.
“They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. It will be available on Netflix on November 2.
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