'Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent': Film Review

A delicious if sometimes pretentious biographical portrait.

Lydia Tenaglia's documentary profiles the highly influential, emotionally tortured celebrity chef.

Andy Warhol may have predicted that someday everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, but he wasn’t prescient enough to know that every notable chef would be the subject of a documentary. The latest example is Lydia Tenaglia’s portrait of Jeremiah Tower, who pioneered the American Cuisine movement at such highly influential restaurants as Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and San Francisco’s Stars. Benefiting from its charismatic and emotionally complex central figure, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent proves compelling enough to appeal beyond its target foodie demographic.

The biography has an almost Dickensian feel. Tower was born to wealth and traveled the world in high style as a youngster. But he was largely neglected by his alcoholic mother and abusive father, and became a solitary, tortured figure. “The worst experience that ever happened to me was that I wasn’t an orphan,” he comments. Beginning when he was a child, his one passion was food. “Before I read books, I read menus,” he says, describing a life-changing incident in which he was fed a dish of barracuda on a beach by an Aboriginal Australian fisherman.

Attending Harvard, he ignored the entreaties of fellow students to join their social revolution. He chose instead to concentrate on cooking. Shortly after graduating, he wound up at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ groundbreaking restaurant and one of the first in America to champion local ingredients. Elegant and handsome, Tower quickly became a local celebrity and sex symbol and, despite identifying himself as gay, entered into an affair with Waters. But they eventually had a falling out, as she began resenting the amount of attention he was receiving. (Given the number of talking heads in the film, her absence is conspicuous.)

Tower soon opened his own restaurant, Stars. Despite its seedy surroundings, it immediately became a sensation. Its run was not, however, without controversy. There was, for instance, the time when Tower was sued by a waiter who claimed he was fired because he had AIDS. After an earthquake devastated the neighborhood, Tower closed the restaurant and retreated from the spotlight for more than a decade, spending much of his time in Mexico.

The culinary world was shocked when he emerged from retirement in 2014 and took on the unlikely assignment of head chef at New York City’s massive Tavern on the Green. Many saw him as an unlikely fit for the perpetually problem-plagued institution. “It’s a chef killer,” comments Anthony Bourdain, who serves as one of the film’s executive producers. The experts’ predictions proved correct. Tower’s tenure resulted in mediocre reviews and disputes with the owners that led to his dismissal.

Tower’s story is dramatic enough that it didn’t really need Tenaglia’s sometimes overbearing stylization, including awkwardly staged, gauzy dramatic reenactments of his childhood years. The fractured storytelling doesn’t help, with the chronology frequently jumping around in confusing fashion. The film is most effective at its least ambitious, from the fascinating archival footage to the pungent comments by such figures as Mario Batali, Martha Stewart, Wolfgang Puck and Ruth Reichl to its fly-on-the-wall scenes of the besieged Tower lashing out at his underlings at Tavern on the Green. But despite its missteps and occasional pretensions, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent provides a compelling portrait of the chef as tortured artist.

Production companies: Zero Point Zero, CNN Films
Distributor: The Orchard
Director: Lydia Tenaglia
Producer: Susan Porretta
Executive producers: Anthony Bourdain, Christopher Collins, Joe Caternini, Lydia Tenaglia, Amy Entelis, Vinnie Malhotra
Director of photography: Morgan Fallon
Editor: Eric Lasby
Composers: Giulio Carmassi, Bryan Scary

Rated R, 102 minutes