‘The Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles’
Director: Chuck Workman
2 (out of 5) Globes
It’s a thankless job but someone’s got to do it: “The Magician” is a completely straightforward, wholly cookie cutter primer on an iconoclast who forged new forms of art. Does that make it unnecessary? Not at all. Welles has received plenty of documentary coverage, but he’s never had one that laid out his entire body of work, from conquering theater, radio and movies through his patchy European period to his death. (Though it doesn’t dare mention that his last film credit is the voice of an evil planet in “Transformers: The Movie.”) In the future this will be one way curious kids learn not only about “Citizen Kane” but “Touch of Evil,” “The Trial,” “F for Fake” and his many never-finished works, like “Don Quixote” and “The Other Side of the Wind.” And that, in its entirely unsexy way, is important.
For what “The Magician” is — pure exposition — it’s not bad. Director Chuck Workman is known for his expert (if easily parodied) Oscar montages, and while he has plenty of the usual talking heads — actor/Welles biographer Simon Callow, Welles’ late-period companion Oja Kodar — he does his best to stick to footage of Welles himself. There’s plenty of those to grab from; when he wasn’t making movies, he was a talk show staple and university raconteur, spinning his own legend through charming chatter. Sometimes he would even contradict himself, and Workman even includes one instance where he exaggerates a factoid during one interview then underplays it another.
“The Magician” still runs square into hyperbole when it arrives at “Citizen Kane,” though you try to offer a 101 that doesn’t. Still, it doesn’t buy into the mainstream belief that he never came close to his film debut. It dwells on established biggies like “Touch of Evil” and his radical, playful 1973 cine-essay “F for Fake,” but throws all in for “Chimes at Midnight,” the favorite film of Welles and other commentators but which — because no one has a clue who owns the rights — is nearly impossible to see outside of oft-unflattering bootlegs.
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All this said, as a professor once said, a perfect summary will get you an F. Anyone who knows anything about Orson Welles outside of “Citizen Kane” — or “The Muppet Movie” or “The Third Man” or wine ads or any of the other gigs he had to take to get funding/make a living — will likely only come away with a vague sense of semi-appreciation of a necessary but uninspired job well done. It’s exclusively for someone who’s never heard of his “War of the Worlds” airing or that “The Magnificent Ambersons” was recut while he was out of town or that he reluctantly directed “Touch of Evil” — or, even, that “Citizen Kane” is One of the Greatest Films Ever Made. Everyone else is encouraged to get back to their deep Welles research.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge