They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead: Confidential Report, by David Bax
Orson Welles was a noted music lover and yet I somehow have a hard time believing he was a fan of early punk bands like Suicide or the Buzzcocks. So, early on in the new Welles-focused documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, when director Morgan Neville drops the needle on the former group’s “Cheree,” I was pleasantly stunned. But that’s the sort of choice that is indicative of Neville’s fun, go-for-broke methods (even if his cluttered style is directly at odds with Suicide’s notorious minimalism). It’s also a clue that the film won’t just be a feature length advertisement for this week’s release of The Other Side of the Wind, the making of which forms the backbone of the narrative here. While, of course, irrefutably pro-Welles, Neville’s film is one that speaks—and thinks—for itself.
Neville assembled a frankly staggering number of Welles friends, collaborators, experts and other outliers to tell the story of the making and unmaking of The Other Side of the Wind. He illustrates these interviews with clips from that movie and many of Welles’ others. Then he strings it all together with Alan Cumming as a sort of host in brief segments that are probably unnecessary but still welcome thanks to Cumming’s delightful presence.
Neville works in the mode of many mainstream, post-Michael Moore documentarians. Like that other Morgan, Spurlock, he’s an entertainer, sometimes desperately terrified to let his movies breathe for a second, lest his audience get bored. He employs clever tricks like letting Welles’ characters, in dialogue from his movies, respond to questions raised or posed by the interviews. Look deeper, though, and you’ll realize that this is more than just tongue-in-cheek fun. Neville is specifically and subtly commenting on the assumption that Welles’ films are autobiographical, seemingly affirming that notion while, with the other hand, reminding us of his subject’s lifelong penchant for trickery and illusion. Neville’s style may be that of a bevy of other documentaries today but he’s possibly the best at it.
When talking about The Other Side of the Wind, Welles repeatedly, as we are shown, sang the praises of the “divine accidents” that make for the best films. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, though, seems to leave no room for them. For all his apparent whimsy, Neville is a meticulous and determined filmmaker.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t insights and revelations to be found here, though. From the collage of 1970s television appearances and interviews emerges something that we either forget or are too young to remember. Welles wasn’t just one of the great film artists; he was a celebrity. It’s almost surreal to be reminded of this, like watching Olivier Assayas do Carpool Karaoke, but it also makes his struggles to complete his films all the more tragic, having happened so publicly.
Neville’s greatest strength, though, is that he’s not too enamored of Welles to ignore his role in his own reputation as a frustrated maverick. We see Welles’ mythmaking-by-blame-placing when he says, in his stentorian voice, that his film has been “destroyed by the Iranians.” And we see him take advantage of the kindness of his friends and demand their loyalty while not always showing it in return. At its best, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is a “great man” biography with the emphasis on the man.