A new documentary, “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” explores the dramatic life of a brilliant, magnetic, troubled chef who changed the way we look at food, then disappeared. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
That chef Jeremiah Tower — not Alice Waters — was the creator of California cuisine, then the architect of his own series of downfalls, left largely forgotten, sounds like the stuff of myth. But the documentary “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” posits a revision of food history, chronicling the life of the magnetic, repellent man who changed American dining, then disappeared.
Tower had a privileged but profoundly unhappy childhood, neglected by his parents on glamorous, globe-ranging trips. His father was “a prick,” his mother “a roaring alcoholic,” as he puts it in “Magnificent.” He tells of finding them in a posh hotel dining room, both of them surprised to see him, assuming the other had put him back in boarding school. It’s the stuff of a great novel: a beautiful, terrible, formative early encounter with a man, a barracuda, a knife, and a fire on a beach; a Proustian cup of consommé served to him on an ocean liner. Dining — alone, a child at a white-clothed table — becomes a ritual that sustains him. He was friendless, but: “There was always lobster.”
Reading menus before he read books, Tower started cooking at a tender age, studying Escoffier, and never stopped. In 1970, after Harvard, he made his way to the Bay Area, where, recognizing his genius with cooking, friends introduced him to Alice Waters, who was running a loosey-goosey little restaurant in Berkeley called Chez Panisse. There, the film postulates, it was he, not she, who began celebrating local ingredients with elevated, elegant techniques; it was he who enticed James Beard to come dine; it was he who deserved his name on the first cookbook. For once, it’s proposed, a woman wrongly got all the credit; at the least, Waters and Tower share custody of a movement that changed American food.
Movie Review ★★★
‘Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,’ a documentary directed by Lydia Tenaglia. 102 minutes. Rated R for language. Sundance Cinemas (21+).
A perfectionist, a romantic, an attention-seeking but deeply private man, one with the soul of an artist: “The Last Magnificent,” from the title to the closing sequence, matches Tower’s drama with its own style. Scenes of him walking through a sere landscape of ancient ruins, the voice-over his own poetic words, in his own voice — it seems overwrought, but ends up feeling fitting. Re-enactments with actors portraying Tower at various stages of life ring distractingly hokey amid it all, but fortunately, they’re limited.
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Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl and more weigh in on Tower’s greatness and his hubris, as do his thoughtful, perceptive friends. The photos and home movies from his faded childhood are marvelous. The footage from the sexy, supercharged, very ’70s Chez Panisse is miraculous. The captivating, see-and-be-seen 1980s world of his subsequent San Francisco restaurant, Stars, is made tantalizingly real. A third act, at New York’s Tavern on the Green, unfolds ineluctably, with the momentum of doom. In the end, it’s exile again, from a world that he helped, unacknowledged, to create.