Fast, funny and rather too eager to please, the documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” tells the story of the making and near-unmaking of Orson Welles’s final film, “The Other Side of the Wind.” As a stand-alone, the documentary has obvious attractions, most notably its glimpses of Welles at work and at play amid his eternal hustling for money. But mostly it serves as a warm-up for “The Other Side of the Wind,” which Welles started shooting in 1970 but is just now being released — 33 years after his death.
“The Other Side of the Wind” has often served either to burnish Welles’s legendary status or to further establish what dreary minds like to call his unfulfilled promise. By the time he began production on it, he had long ago written himself into history, having triumphed in theater, radio and film. His movie output was relatively modest compared with some of his peers, including those who worked in a Hollywood system and culture that remained hostile to him to the end. But the number of great films with his name on them is estimable, with “ just the start of a run that includes “Touch of Evil” and “Chimes at Midnight.”
Directed by Morgan Neville, “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” takes its title from a line that Peter Bogdanovich said Welles delivered a few years before he died. Bogdanovich — an admirer turned friend, supplicant and apparent rival — has for decades been among the most ardent keepers of the Wellesian flame. He’s one of the documentary’s producers and more complex participants. He’s also been instrumental in the release of “The Other Side of the Wind.” His prominence here is understandable, although it complicates a movie that can seem less interested in Welles as an artist than in ideas about him (genius, failure, father, god, monster) that formed in the minds of others, among them some who worked on “The Other Side.”
The story of the making of “The Other Side” has been told before, including by the film historian Joseph McBride, who’s in that movie and the documentary. Like some of the documentary’s other participants, McBride isn’t immediately identified. Perhaps because of the large number of contributors or in an effort to make the film more commercially palatable, Neville uses onscreen identifiers fairly sparingly. This approach works best with the likes of Dennis Hopper, who first pops up unnamed during a bit on New Hollywood. Only later, do you learn that the clip of him is for a scene that Welles shot for “The Other Side,” which is, in part, the story of New and Old Hollywood and of two very different directors who represent each.
Neville was inspired by Josh Karp’s engrossing book “Orson Welles’s Last Movie,” which goes into greater detail than Neville can in 98 minutes. Karp also pays closer attention to Welles’s artistic process, which in the documentary can seem little more than pure chaos. Yet one of the most engrossing interludes shows Welles guiding Norman Foster through a scene in “The Other Side.” “Relax your face,” Welles says. “Sad. Empty. Empty. Now say ‘Many happy returns’ so I hardly hear you.” Foster does, and Welles says, “You pronounced it too carefully.” So Foster, who’s playing an alcoholic, repeats the line, this time with a slight, perfect slur.
It’s a wonderful peek at Welles at work, though it is soon submerged in the flood of images and voices that are neatly arranged to deliver the same idea over and over again. Basically: Welles was a genius, nobody knew what was going on in “The Other Side” except Welles (maybe!), but, then again, he was a genius. Instead of exploring or deconstructing said genius, Neville seems interested in putting it into tidy boxes. After the scene of Welles directing Foster, Neville cuts to a 1976 headline (“Will Welles Finish His Film?”) for an article by Charles Higham, an antagonistic Welles chronicler whom the director apparently despised.
Higham’s article joins a persistent refrain in the documentary that suggests Welles, his radical independence and the very idea of film as art remain contested, confusing terrain. “Was it some sort of endless odyssey, we’ll never know,” one man shrugs. “It was this circus of scattered souls,” says someone else. “He seemed to be doing everything he could to alienate as many people as possible,” says another. Throughout, Neville seems intent on trying to read the man through his films, an approach that Bogdanovich says Welles would have hated. For his part, Welles, whose image flickers throughout — as the beautiful young man he was and as characters like Kane, Othello, Hank Quinlan and Falstaff — remains both elusive and indelibly present.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes.