MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OF ORSON WELLES (USA/IFI/91mins)
Directed by Chuck Workman. Starring Orson Welles, Simon Callow, Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin, Christopher Welles Feder, Richard Linklater.
THE PLOT: Oscar winning filmmaker and long time editor of the Academy Awards, Chuck Workman takes a look back over the life and career of one of the most celebrated filmmakers of all time; Orson Welles.
THE VERDICT: There is little doubt that Orson Welles was one of the greatest American directors of both stage and screen, and documentary filmmaker Chuck Workman goes behind the scenes of the man’s life and work to remind audiences of the huge influence Welles had on cinema, and the struggles he went through in the Hollywood system.
MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OF ORSON WELLES is an incredibly well edited and put together documentary. While the film works through Welles’ life in chronological order, there are clips of Welles himself, at various stages of his life, used throughout to add a touch of seriousness and come comic relief to the film. As well as Welles himself, Workman has assembled an incredible cast of interviewees, including Peter Bogdanovich, Simon Callow (himself a Welles biographer), Welles’ daughter Christopher Welles Feder, Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin, Charlton Heston and Richard Linklater. Workman also uses clips from some of the many films about Welles’ life, including Linklater’s ME AND ORSON WELLES, and TV movie RKO 281.
What emerges through the film is the picture of a man who was incredibly confident and self-assured from the get go of his career in theatre – including some time on the stage at Dublin’s Gate Theatre – but found himself stifled and held back by the Hollywood studio system. Workman takes pains to point out that not only did Welles revolutionise radio with the infamous broadcast of WAR OF THE WORLDS – which audiences believed was real – at the age of 23, but he was one of the first – if not the first – independent filmmaker, in a time when independent filmmakers simply didn’t exist.
Workman divides his film into the various chapters of Welles’ life – The Boy Wonder, The Outsider, The Master – and although the people who knew and loved Welles form the foundation of the film, in allowing Welles to speak for himself through archive footage and interviews, the film is given a strength and depth, and Welles comes off as incredibly clever, self deprecating and warm, and incredibly self aware.
The trouble with MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OF ORSON WELLES is that while it is appropriate that the film is released around the 100th anniversary of Welles’ birth, it seems to take pains to show Welles in a positive light (although a former classmate was clearly not a fan!), and is not really anything we have not seen before. Welles fans will delight in this documentary about the great filmmaker and actor, newcomers will find themselves curious about Welles’ work, but this is not the film to change your mind if you labour under the impression that CITIZEN KANE is overrated. Still, it’s a strong examination of Welles’ career, and a celebration of the life of a trailblazer of modern cinema.
RATING: 3.5/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles
Review by Brogen Hayes
3.5A delight
  • filmbuff2011

    ‘Good evening, ladies and gentleman. My name is Orson Welles. I am an actor. I am a writer. I am a producer. I am a director. I am a magician. I appear onstage and on the radio. Why are there so many of me and so few of you?’. That quote pretty much sums up Orson Welles, so what more can be said about the boy wonder? Quite a lot it seems. Magician: The Astonishing Life And Work Of Orson Welles is a brisk but thoroughly engaging documentary which marks the centenary of Welles’ birth. A century ago, he was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin and then grew up in Woodstock, Illinois. Even as a child, he was precocious. As a teenager, he blagged his way into the Gate Theatre in Dublin, pretending to be an older actor of note. Fame came quickly, with his now infamous broadcast of The War Of The Worlds on radio. It provoked mass panic and prompted an investigation. Then came his debut film, Citizen Kane – arguably the best debut ever made and the greatest film ever made (this reviewer certainly thinks so). But as Welles sought greater control over his work in Hollywood, he lost his grip on his place there. The Magnificent Ambersons was mutilated by RKO without his involvement, leading to some people still hunting for that missing hour of footage, the holy grail for film collectors. Welles then worked mostly in Europe on his own films, many of them unfinished, and taking bit parts in other people’s films, until his death at the age of 70 in 1985. His was a life well lived, becoming a media personality and larger than life character even before Alfred Hitchcock. Chuck Workman, who has worked steadily on documentaries for many years, has assembled an impressive gallery of archival footage of Welles into a fun, whistle-stop tour through Welles’ colourful life. He also records some new interviews with Welles’ biographer and actor Simon Callow and digs through the archives for contributions from peers like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, William Friedkin and Martin Scorsese. Welles contribution to cinema is unmistakeable – his use of deep focus cinematography and multi-strand perspectives in Citizen Kane was ground-breaking. Touch Of Evil (soon to be re-released) also opens with a stunning one-take tracking shot that has often been aped, but never bettered. This was a man still bursting with ideas by the time of his death. In a sense, he truly was a magician, with ‘the biggest electric train set a boy ever had’. Magician: The Astonishing Life And Work Of Orson Welles is an ideal, entertaining introduction to anyone new to his work, but is also a reminder of his genius to long-time admirers like this reviewer. ****