If there’s any doubt to the hubris that runs inherent to the lifestyle and vision of a master chef, then look no further than the title of Lydia Tenaglia’s documentary on foodie iconoclast Jeremiah Tower.
Handsome, sure-footed and completely married to his ideals of transforming the American food scene to his carnivorous will, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent is part history lesson and part dire warning that the master chef scene is also quite dog-dog-eat. However, through an array of celebrity talking heads (Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart and Wolfgang Puck) who gleam about the visionary artist, mixed with somewhat distant friends and family members espousing on Tower’s psychological “dark places,” Tenaglia’s film walks an uneasy balance that makes for an equally scattershot film.
Beginning strongly, the first half of the film is the best. Spending a great deal of time on Tower’s highly privileged but lonely childhood, the film amply shows how his food imagination was stimulated, constantly left to fend for himself on his family’s wealthy globetrotting vacations. The murmur and glare of lights inside an ocean liner dining room. The collection of menus he amassed at the age of ten. The willful gluttony of ordering anything or everything on the menu and carefully studying the taste of each. And especially the imprint of meeting and spending a day on the beach with a native man at the age of six. All these memories serve as the foundations to the man and food inventor Jeremiah would become, as well as providing more insight into a documentary figure than I’ve seen in quite some time.
The interesting information continues as we follow Tower into the late 60’s and early 70’s, basically falling into a gig as a chef at Berkeley’s now famed Chez Panisse. Like another recent food doc, Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table (2017), in which Tower himself also appeared in as one of the celebrity talking heads, Tenaglia’s film superbly recounts the opening of a new frontier in American cuisine where restaurants became famous for shucking their reliance on international (i.e. French) cooking and instead focused on local flavor and found food items. Essentially a grass-roots reawakening to the splendors of the coastlines, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent becomes a clear-eyed examination of this movement and its carefree hippie formation.
Becoming less focused as it goes along, both through editorial choices of overlapping Tower in his nomadic existence on a sunny Mexican coast and the eventual financial and ethical dilemmas that sink his much lauded San Franciscan”Stars” restaurant, Jeremiah Tower also becomes less of an interesting primary figure. His coaxing out of semi-retirement to helm a sinking New York establishment in 2014 and the jaundiced relationships that develop feel crafted as a simple three-act arch. He’s surely earned his status as a ‘restaurateur’ and words can still hurt even the most prominent figures in a certain field, yet the documentary tries too hard to make a martyr out of him.
Executive produced by Anthony Bourdain, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent is self serving at times and feels as if it’s coming from a place of insider privilege. It also, for at least two-thirds of its run time, exposes a small faction of untold, sauteed American pop culture history. Food connoisseurs and general history buffs should rejoice in this new-found oral history being given screen time. It not only makes the brain tick but the mouth water.
The film opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, April 28 at the Land mark Magnolia Theater.