Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 24, 2015)
On the occasion of Orson Welles’ 100th birthday, we get an examination of his career via the 2015 documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles. This follows a traditional documentary path, as it mixes movie chips, archival elements and interviews.
In the latter category, we get modern notes from actor/biographer Simon Callow, Christopher Welles Feder, classmate Joanne Hill Styles, stage/film director Julie Taymor, George Eastman House curator Paolo Cherchi Usai, filmmakers Sir Peter Brook, Paul Mazursky, Buck Henry, Costa-Gavras and Peter Bogdanovich, writer/film scholar James Naremore, critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Elvis Mitchell, friend/filmmaker Henry Jaglom, biographer Joseph McBride, sound designer Walter Murch, filmmaker/teacher Eric Sherman, Welles’ companion (1965-1985) Oja Kodar, chef Wolfgang Puck, Munich Film Museum director Stefan Drossler, film restorer Michael Dawson, producer Frank Marshall, and actors Norman Lloyd and Richard Benjamin.
Welles himself pops up via archival pieces, and similar elements produce comments from Gate Theatre co-founder Michael MacLiammoir, actors William Alland, Suzanne Cloutier, Jeanne Moreau, Charlton Heston, John Houseman, Anthony Perkins and Ruth Ford, Pioneer Radio producer Norman Corwin, RKO executive Reggie Armour, directors Richard Linklater, William Friedkin, George Lucas, Sydney Pollack, Robert Wise, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, longtime Welles associate Richard Wilson, producer Pandro S. Berman, daughter Beatrice Welles-Smith, and writer/friend Peter Viertel.
Magician starts with Welles’ childhood and early life as it takes us through his beginnings in dramatic arts. From there we learn of his time on radio as well as his move to films, with an emphasis on 1941’s Citizen Kane. After this we follow his post-Kane ups and downs as well as some personal areas.
Magician sticks with a tried and true documentary/biography format, and that seems good and bad. On the positive side, the film manages to give us an efficient overview, and it doesn’t attempt to get too clever-clever. The program goes through Welles’ life/career in a logical manner and touches on a mix of appropriate topics.
Unfortunately, this approach feels a bit stiff and uninspired. While I prefer the traditional documentary style to something self-consciously “creative”, I still think Magician could’ve found a way to enliven the proceedings. The program feels a little lifeless as it checks off boxes and takes us through the usual topics.
This means it gives us a rudimentary biography and that’s about it. Do I know more about Welles now that I’ve seen Magician? Sure, and there’s much about the movie to enjoy. We get a reasonable overview of Welles’ life and a good array of archival elements help enliven the proceedings.
Still, I can’t help but think the documentary fails to make Welles seem nearly as interesting as it should. By most accounts, Welles was a compelling, larger than life figure, but I don’t think Magician conveys that well. We get occasional hints of these traits but mostly, the movie simply goes from one topic to another without much that brings drama to the tale.
Again, none of this makes Magician a bad documentary – it just ends up as an average one. It does enough to educate and entertain us to a moderate degree but it lacks the verve and depth to become something special.