With his Vidal-Buckley documentary “Best of Enemies” and this year’s smash hit about Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” filmmaker Morgan Neville has proven himself a keenly sensitive, artful showman when surveying a career through archival footage and fresh interviews. He knows how to re-light the flame of a life, and that’s quickly apparent in his deeply entertaining and illuminating Orson Welles documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.”
With impish respect, it chronicles the tortuous journey of Welles’ most notoriously unfinished-in-his-lifetime last movie, “The Other Side of the Wind.”
For cinephiles, it’s a high-calorie, clip-and-interview-laden feast of biography, insight, and gossip. Add to that the bonus that — unlike the dashed promise felt after absorbing “Jorodorwsky’s Dune” that the cinema gods were robbed — in this case there’s a finally completed “Wind,” assembled in recent years, also going out through Netflix. to go with Neville’s exhaustive behind-the-scenes appreciation. (Having watched “They’ll Love Me” prior to “Wind,” it’s safe to say they can be enjoyed in either order, since repeat viewings are likely for movie lovers, anyway.)
Using an elegantly shot (in black-and-white) Alan Cumming at a reel-stacked edit bay as a Wellesian narrating device, Neville wastes no time setting the scene: how by the late 1960s, strapped for funding, still living in the shadow of “Citizen Kane,” and ready to be embraced by the younger, edgier Hollywood after years in European exile, Welles in 1970 launched headlong into filming an idea that had been percolating for years, even though he had no complete script, no full cast, and no outside funding.
The autobiographical (though Welles rarely admitted it) concept involved a mythic, exiled filmmaker’s 70th birthday, around which the faithful and sycophantic would gather, while the fate of the director’s attempted comeback project lay in the balance. Naturally, this also described the shooting of “The Other Side of the Wind” as it carried on piecemeal for six years with a cast that included John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, and Welles’s lover-collaborator Oja Kodar.
Using a skeleton crew led by a young new cinematographer named Gary Graver, who cold-called Welles himself and whose own story as a dedicated worker bee shadows the film’s, Welles directed lush, vibrant scenes aping European art movies with Kodar (the film-within-the-film sequences). Alternatively, at a house in Arizona, one address over from the spread Antonioni blew up in “Zabriskie Point,” he shot the party sequences in a jagged documentary style.
Real-life details undergirded Welles’s narrative, in intensely psychological ways, never more so than that the director, through Huston’s character, played out onscreen his power-shifting relationship with acolyte and friend Bogdanovich, who wasn’t spared Welles’ ridicule. (Originally casting impersonator Rich Little in the role — an imitator as an imitator — was one such jab.)
Bogdanovich always helped his pal, though – his remembrances especially are tinged with the melancholy of loving a complex person. But at the point when money woes strained, Welles once more found himself the ever-loved cinema master — perpetual talk show guest, AFI honoree — but never to the tune of cash needed to realize a vision.
As Neville breezily relates an odyssey of chaos, inspiration, and impasses, he also makes expertly amusing, thematically-edited use of all manner of Welles footage (from movies, outtakes, television shows) so that the man himself becomes a chorus in his own story. The interviewee list of witnesses and collaborators is numerous, from the well-known to the unseen, their recollections and analyses sometimes differing, but nearly always intuitive.
The prime takeaway is of an irascibly charming, wounded and forceful genius both having the time of his life and sensing the gathering dusk. As the story eases into Welles’ final year, the most tantalizing question posed is whether he even wanted to finish catch-as-catch-can projects like “Wind”; was directing always about the exploration, the quest for “happy accidents,” and rarely the completion?
Eventually, Neville carries off his own winking director’s trick, with the help of Welles himself. Returning to footage used earlier, filmed by the Maysles brothers in Spain in the ’60s, of an energized Welles regaling a captive audience in a hotel lobby with his vision for what sounds like what eventually became “Wind,” the pitch turns enchantingly meta — that the future movie just might have to include them, in that moment, talking about it.
After the rollercoaster journey “They’ll Love Me” details, it’s enough to make one contemplate: Could Neville’s documentary be, in a sense, what Welles wanted “The Other Side of the Wind” to be all along? Someone else’s movie about Orson Welles’s movie about a fictional director’s movie which is inside another movie that’s ultimately about all movies?
Cheekily, Neville reveals he knows you’re thinking this, and it’s the perfect capper for his engaging hat-tip to a legend for whom the movies were always worth imagining, celebrating, and forever trying to get made.