The Last Impresario: London Review

Highs and lows of a backstage legend.

A starry guest list adds extra zing to this warm-hearted documentary about London showbiz producer and party-loving playboy Michael White.

The kind of glitzy, gossipy, celebrity-jammed story that grabs you from the first frame, The Last Impresario is an affectionate profile of the colorful and prolific stage, film and television producer Michael “Chalky” White. Born in Scotland, educated in Switzerland, White made his name in Swinging London as a legendary social butterfly with extremely broad cultural tastes. He partied with the Beatles and Stones, helped put the Monty Python team on the map, brought John Cage and Merce Cunningham to London for the first time, made a fortune on The Rocky Horror Show and A Chorus Line, then lost most of it in bad business deals and hedonistic excess.

Premiering at the London Film Festival this week, The Last Impresario marks the impressive feature debut of the 26-year-old Australian director and sometime actor Gracie Otto, half-sister of The Lord of the Rings co-star Miranda. Born of a chance encounter with White at the Cannes Film Festival, the film features a stellar gallery of talking heads including Naomi Watts, Kate Moss, John Cleese, Anna Wintour, Yoko Ono, John Waters, Barry Humphries and Lorne Michaels. Archive photos also show White carousing with Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine, Johnny Depp, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Michael Douglas and half the British royal family. The high-voltage cast alone should ensure further festival play and keen interest from TV buyers.

In both style and subject, Otto’s film is reminiscent of The Kid Stays in the Picture, Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s 2002 docu-memoir of the fabled Hollywood producer Robert Evans. White has some uncanny parallels with Evans, including his legendary playboy reputation, his long friendship with Nicholson, and the series of strokes which have left him frail and shaky in his seventies. The Last Impresario also deploys a similar visual grammar to the Evans doc, animating old newspaper cuttings and photos from White’s huge personal horde of celebrity snapshots to bring them alive on screen.

Otto scores highly with the film’s slick polish, jazzy pacing and superstar guest list. But journalistic rigor is not her forte. Although several interviewees drop strong hints about White’s drug habits and their part in his Icarus-like downfall, viewers are ultimately left to read between the white lines. A belated attempt to psychoanalyze his career as a reaction to childhood illness and separation from family also feels like a flimsy afterthought. White gives Otto plenty of access but is not hugely helpful, partly because the strokes have clearly impaired his speech and memory functions. 

All the same, The Last Impresario is a warm-hearted, effortlessly enjoyable journey through an extraordinary showbusiness life. To her credit, Otto does not sentimentalize or sensationalize White’s story, and it is testament to his enduring charm that even ex-wives and former business partners consented to be interviewed. He may be living in reduced circumstances nowadays, but he is plainly enjoying a comfortable old age surrounded by famous friends and ex-lovers. The party continues.

Production companies: Wildflower Films, Ralf Films
Producers: Nicole O’Donohue, Gracie Otto
Starring: Michael White, Naomi Watts, Kate Moss, John Cleese, Anna Wintour, John Waters
Director: Gracie Otto
Cinematographer: Gracie Otto
Editors: Craig Deeker, Karen Johnson
Music: Michael Yezerski
Sales company: Wildflower Films
Unrated, 83 minutes