Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jeremiah Tower, Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Lydia Tenaglia
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 102
Date: 05/04/2017

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent (2017)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Absolute Tower

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

According to the new documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, which opens Friday in Bay Area theaters, chefs were once considered servants.

Today, however, they can be celebrities, or even great artists. But they can also be unsung, under-appreciated, and lonely.

Most food lovers today know of the legendary Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse and its equally legendary owner Alice Waters.

Fewer are familiar with another Chez Panisse chef, Jeremiah Tower, although longtime San Franciscans may remember his ultra-popular restaurant Stars, which was located near City Hall and operated from 1984 until the late 1990s.

After Stars, Tower more or less disappeared, but filmmaker Lydia Tenaglia — a producer for TV celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain — caught up with him again.

Tenaglia's film interviews the slightly grumpy, slightly aloof, but still revealing Tower.

It uses filmed re-enactments, looking a little like Guy Maddin's stylized re-creations of silent-era cinema, to tell his story.

Tower is forthcoming with a potent, harrowing tale about a family vacation to the Great Barrier Reef. A fisherman entranced the six year-old with the sights, sounds, and smells of a roasting barracuda on the beach, but also made inappropriate sexual advances.

He grew up with largely absent, indifferent parents, spending countless hours, and eating, in hotels all over the world. It doesn't take a PhD to guess at how these experiences may have shaped him.

Eventually hired at Chez Panisse, this charismatic, gay, prickly sensation helped transform it from a wannabe French bistro to a center of California Cuisine, championing local ingredients.

Waters is not interviewed here, and though their relationship was complex, and though Tower does complain that Waters took credit for his work on a cookbook, the film is careful to give both chefs recognition for the restaurant's success.

Actual interviewees include Tower's friends and family — many claim that they don't really "know" him — as well as other celebrity chefs.

One, Mario Batali, worked at Stars for a time. "I cooked for Gorbachev!" he says, amazed.

The movie catches up with Tower in 2014 as he takes a job at New York's failing Tavern on the Green, a struggle that provides interesting drama and character depth in the film's final third.

There is, of course, beautiful food to salivate over, but Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent is far from "food porn." It explores the necessity of art and creation and the betrayals and hurt than can result.

Finally, it suggests that sometimes success and fame can be far less satisfying than being in one's own kitchen with a beautiful bunch of radishes.

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