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Documentary Review - MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OF ORSON WELLES

Overview of the life of Orson Welles.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Chuck Workman



"Pilfering footage from previous studies of Welles, the movie serves as a sort of Greatest Hits package of Welles documentaries, but like every Greatest Hits compilation, it overlooks some interesting album tracks."



Orson Welles is that unicorn documentary makers lust after; an artist whose personal life, and in this case personality, is as interesting as, if not more compelling than, his work. Welles has been the subject of dozens of documentaries, in a variety of languages, thanks to a nomadic lifestyle that saw him ingratiate himself to the citizens of the world. So what does this latest overview of Welles' career and life have to offer that we haven't seen before?
The answer, regrettably, is not a lot. If you're new to the world of Welles, this will serve as an adequate primer. If you're a full-blown fan (and what movie lover isn't?), you'll have seen almost every last second of footage included here at some prior point. Pilfering footage from previous studies of Welles, the movie serves as a sort of Greatest Hits package of Welles documentaries, but like every Greatest Hits compilation, it overlooks some interesting album tracks.
Much of the fascination with Welles springs from how much of his career was marred by failure. It makes him somehow more relatable, and Welles would be the first to poke fun at his misfires. Chuck Workman's film is stiflingly reverential, focussing almost exclusively on the triumphs of Welles' career. Mention of the bungled Mr Arkadin aka Confidential Report is notably absent, for example. Putting its subject on a pedestal, the film is unfair at times to those it considers unworthy of Welles' presence, inserting a clip from The Muppet Movie as an example of Welles 'slumming it' for a pay-cheque, but Welles was a huge fan of Jim Henson, at one point calling The Muppet Show "the most original thing that ever happened on the box".
Opportunities are wasted with the inclusion of interviews with filmmakers like Spielberg, Scorsese and Bogdanovich, who talk about how much they love Welles rather than discussing his influence on their own work. The budget spent on acquiring clips from movies based on Welles' life like RKO 281 and Me & Orson Welles might have been better spent on clips from the movies of the generation influenced by his work.
Of course, no movie that features footage of Orson Welles regaling the camera is going to be a waste of your time, but this is an unnecessary doc in an already saturated field. Much of the film's highlights are lifted from the BBC's 1982 The Orson Welles Story. If you can get your hands on that show, Magician is rendered null and void.



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