They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is as fascinating as it is frustrating. This is the second documentary from director Morgan Neville, whose other 2018 film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, was one of the best documentaries of the year.
Dead gives its audience a behind the scenes look at legendary director Orson Welles’ ill-fated attempt to make a big Hollywood comeback in the late 1970s with a passion project called The Other Side of the Wind. That project, which Welles failed to finish before his death in 1985, was resurrected this year by Netflix – also the company behind Neville’s documentary. The streaming company put resources into assembling a final cut for Wind 30 years after the auteur’s death.
As a devotee and student of cinema, Neville’s documentary is a fascinating look behind the curtain at not only the creative impulse and process, but an examination of that impulse and process from one of the greatest film artists the medium has ever known. Welles was a true genius whose work was stymied by every studio he worked with after he made Citizen Kane, the only film of his over which he had complete creative control.
The sheer volume of archival footage Neville had access to and included in the film is wondrous. We get to see Welles doing his thing throughout the shooting of Wind, which he was forced to do in bits-and-pieces over nearly a decade due to lack of funding. Neville paints an extraordinary portrait of a man obsessed with his chosen art form who, due in no small part to his own ego and life-sized hubris, found himself shunned by the studios capable of funding his projects.
Where They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead goes a bit sideways is in some of the nuts-and-bolts details of documentary filmmaking. It’s hard to level a criticism like that against a filmmaker like Neville, who has proven his talent in the craft more than once. It seems he was so enamored with the idea of making his film as free-wheeling and gonzo as the subject he was covering, he eschewed common techniques like letting us know who he was interviewing. The story his interviewees tell and context clues help with some of that, but a documentary shouldn’t rely on that for such a basic concern. A framing device that uses actor Alan Cumming as a sort of emcee and narrator is clumsy at best.
There is also an idea introduced in the final minutes of the film that robs Dead of some of the emotional impact it’s earned up to that point. Neville, through his interview subjects, posits that Welles was such a genius that he never intended to finish Wind. In this three-dimensional game of chess Welles was playing in his own mind, the act of documenting and talking about the film – which Neville presumably believes his film is a culmination of – was the actual goal of Wind all along. That gives Welles a win, in a way, but it cheapens the sentiment that Neville explores about Welles being broken by the failure of this last attempt to make a movie.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead ends up being essential viewing for any cinephile, and after watching it, I can’t wait to dive into The Other Side of the Wind, but the documentary is not Neville’s strongest work.