Review: MAGICIAN, A Massive Collage Tribute To Orson Welles

Lead Critic; Brooklyn, New York (@floatingartist)
Review: MAGICIAN, A Massive Collage Tribute To Orson Welles
In Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, documentarian Chuck Workman, best known for his assembled clips for the Oscar ceremonies, including In Memoriam segments, doesn't have to do much to enhance the drama in Welles' life because there is plenty of drama already. 

Using a great wealth of materials -- clips from Welles' films, interviews with many of his artist friends, colleagues, admirers, historians, his TV appearances, and much more -- Workman constructs a patchwork of the legendary filmmaker's entire lifespan, not unlike that of Charles Foster Kane.

It is interesting that even though there are a lot of things said and written about Welles, no documentaries were made about him previously. Perhaps it was because, as Workman points out in the film, of the disagreement between Welles' two surviving daughters, Chris and Beatrice, that prevented it from happening -- Workman did the film without Beatrice's involvement-- and the fact that many of his works remain in legal quagmire.

The film is divided into five chapters. It starts with Boy Wonder, 1915-1941, chronicling Welles' rise from a humble Illinois household to theater wiz kid, then goes on to dominate the Federal and Mercury Theaters. The film unsurprisingly starts with the 'Rosebud' scene and moves on to his infamous 'Invasion from Mars' radio broadcast. We learn that his 'confidence of ignorance' from his theater days bled into the making of Citizen Kane as a novice filmmaker, as well as acting on screen for the first time.

Outsider and Gypsy cover chapters during 1942-1949 and 1949-1957, the former as an unbankable director and the latter his exile period, mostly in Europe, finding himself to be the reluctant proto-independent filmmaker. The Road Back which covers 1949-1966, includes two of the strongest films of Welles' career, The Trial (my personal favorite) and Chimes at Midnight.

Countless interviews range from good -- with Welles' biographer Joseph McBride, his filmmaker friend Peter Bogdanovich, and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum -- to irrelevant and crass -- Julie Taymor (on theater) and chef Wolfgang Puck (chipping in on the subject's penchant for gastronomy).

In interviews, Welles seems remarkably candid about his career. When asked if his poverty in any way helped his creativity, he answers with a definite "No!" He also always loved Hollywood but felt it didn't love him back as much. Was it financial reasons that a myriad of his projects went unfinished, including his long labored adaptation of Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind, or his perfectionist tendencies? With all the interviews Workman presents in the film, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

'A destitute king,' as Jeanne Moreau calls him in one of her interview segments, Welles' life reflects not only that of Kane but that of paranoid, guilt-ridden Joseph K from The Trial and, most acutely and self-consciously, that of Falstaff, in his late masterpiece, The Chimes at Midnight.

Magician is not for hardcore film nerds who are already familiar with Welles' trials and tribulations throughout his career, for there are a lot of well publicized, known facts surrounding the legendary filmmaker and his tenuous relationship with Hollywood. Now anyone can Google 'Orson Welles wine commercial' and view an inebriated Welles fumbling lines and swearing on camera on YouTube. But there are plenty more juicy morsels to go around here to satisfy almost everyone. 


Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is now playing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

  • Chuck Workman
  • Orson Welles
  • Simon Callow
  • Christopher Welles
  • Joanne Hill Styles
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Chuck WorkmanDocumentaryfilmmakingMagicianOrson WellesSimon CallowChristopher WellesJoanne Hill StylesBiography

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