By Joe Hammerschmidt
In this writer’s opinion, the glut of documentaries these days are more sought on educating more than entertaining; not that they aren’t devoid of entertainment value, more often they’re existent with the valid purpose of capturing culture and history. As a sheltered kid of the 90s, more of this same kind is still the most useful teaching tool cinematically. While “Jeremiah Tower the Last Magnificent” isn’t necessarily a movie the average film consumer would be inclined to experience, those who embark on the nearly two-hour odyssey will see it through a dramatic personae as realistic any you’d find in one of those large-scale summer blockbusters.
For those who never knew, Jeremiah Tower was amid the restauranteur elite in the 70s and 80s, arising from obscurity with only an obsession for food and how it should be presented towards the greatest benefit of a restaurant’s patron base. Originally cutting his teeth professionally in the Bay Area at the legendary Chez Panisse, and later at his own famous restaurant Stars, Tower had evolved his craft, creating a style palette which had extended itself not just to taste, but also to the feel of a room, what food could say about us personally, and what it means to feel most welcoming when serving as ringleader to at least 200 people nightly. His voice was the loudest in the California cuisine movement, yet he felt the critics were much louder for his extreme tastes; extreme in the sense he had always aimed far too high for the sky, seeking an unattainable epoch of perfectionism his childhood inscribed upon him but that adulthood wrought to break apart in his journey of discovery, rejection and eventual isolation and disappearance.
What director Lydia Tenaglia, longtime collaborator to Anthony Bourdain (credited as a producer) focuses on primarily is on Tower as the ringleader, in two distinct sides: the excitable showman, and the egregious businessman. While excelling on one, Tower continuously struggles with another be it with himself, mother nature, or with his poorly protected employee-employer relationships. It’s even enough to limit his comeback short; when hired most recently to reverse the sinking ship that is New York’s “Tavern on the Green”, the entire third act is played out as tensely and delicately as a war drama; the restaurant is Tower’s new battlefield, where stuck in his old ways he refuses to adapt and adopt what the ways of business are telling him, certain ways he had all but rejected in his own heyday. A conflicted man, coping with an unattainable dream, Jeremiah Tower is still considered a high-driving force to California cuisine in the 70s/80s, and while the world of fine dining may not have left enough room for him in the 21st century, his legacy remains immortal, with this film serving a testament to the fact. Tenaglia and Bourdain had sought to ensure that legacy, and that is fully accomplished though the film itself may not age as well.
Often burying the facts throughout to keep Tower front-and-center, the order of events should’ve stayed more essential, actually telling the story more evenly. While a sense of the events established was felt, there had to have been moments where the narrative failed me structurally. Had more time had been taking to re-balance the edit, I’d change my tune more. “The Last Magnificent” will not be a film I’d look to revisit in the near future, though if one had enough admiration for the individual or shared enough interest in that particular element in the history of American cuisine, to which this may play the role of “optional reference material”, be advised the individual in his own right speaks far louder than the full sum-of-parts. (B-)
“Jeremiah Tower the Last Magnificent” opens Friday; Sundance Seattle; rated R for language; 105 minutes.