"JEREMIAH TOWER: THE LAST MAGNIFICENT" — 3 stars — Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Francesca De Luca; R (language); Broadway
It's both sad and inspiring to consider how often suffering gives birth to greatness. The subject of the insightful new documentary "Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent" is a man whose lonely childhood turned into a gift appreciated by thousands, though he's never seemed to escape the loneliness that drove him to greatness.
Though "The Last Magnificent" profiles the chef many consider to be the father of American cuisine, director Lydia Tenaglia's film suggests early on that Tower was raised in isolated and extravagant dining halls throughout the world. Tower came from generous wealth and was largely left on his own during his family's many world travels. He admits that food became his best friend, which feels especially tragic when he explains that his love of cooking was born the same night he was molested by a fisherman at the Great Barrier Reef.
From this lonely childhood, "The Last Magnificent" jumps ahead to the years during which Tower transitioned a failed career in architecture into a career that took advantage of his natural love of food. Preparing exotic meals for college roommates led to his rise to fame in a Berkeley, California, restaurant called Chez Panisse, where he and Alice Waters are generally credited with launching the "New American Cuisine" in the early 1970s.
After a fall out with Waters, Tenaglia moves ahead to Tower's next big project, a San Francisco restaurant called Stars that serves as the centerpiece of the documentary. Tower designed Stars as a tribute to Café Society, and "The Last Magnificent" describes its 1980s heyday in sweeping, elegant terms, featuring an open kitchen, a regular rotation of local celebrities and an 80-foot bar.
Much of "The Last Magnificent" deals with the mysterious end of Stars, followed by Tower's retreat from the public eye. Tenaglia's interview subjects speculate on the various reasons Tower ultimately left the establishment, faulting everything from hasty commercial expansion to the AIDS epidemic (Tower is gay) to the San Francisco earthquake in 1989. Interestingly, Tenaglia's exploration of the different causes alternates with a timeline that races ahead to cover Tower's failed 2014 comeback as the executive chef at New York City's Tavern on the Green.
All through "The Last Magnificent," familiar faces like Martha Stewart and Anthony Bourdain add testimony to Tower's friends and associates to paint a picture of a charismatic, enigmatic and critically important figure. Strangely, their insistence that Tower is a mystery is offset by Tower's own candid voiceovers and interview clips.
The sum total of the effort reveals a man who was exquisitely unique, yet every bit the classic artist stereotype: controlling, tormented, driven and lonely. Various interviewees compare him to famous short-lived artistic successes like J.D. Salinger and the Velvet Underground.
Archival footage from Tower's 1970s and '80s heyday give us a hint at the chef's charisma and presence, which contrast with recent footage from Tavern on the Green, where Tower comes across as a milder version of our popular 21st-century reality television kitchen tyrants. This footage may make the clearest connection between our modern-day culinary stars and the man credited with bringing the chef out of the kitchen and into the spotlight.
"Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent" is rated R for language; running time: 103 minutes.