‘Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent’ is a doc that gets cooking
Directed by: Lydia Tenaglia
Starring: Jeremiah Tower, Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart, and Wolfgang Puck
“Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” – “The preparation of good food is merely another expression of art, one of the joys of civilized living.” - Dione Lucas
“The worse thing that ever happened to me was that I wasn’t an orphan.” – Jeremiah Tower
Walking into this movie, I must woefully admit that I have never heard of Jeremiah Tower, but my knowledge of legendary chefs is very, very limited. Julia Child, Gordon Ramsey, Anthony Bourdain, and Wolfgang Puck are the few names that come to mind, and – interestingly - over the course of the 1-hour 43-minute runtime of “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent”, the latter two chefs actually appear in the documentary. During this film, Bourdain, Puck, Martha Stewart, and a host of knowledgeable individuals in the culinary arts heap mountains of praise on Mr. Tower, and some also clearly mention the mystery surrounding the man.
Director Lydia Tenaglia attempts to uncover the mystery, and she presents a film that recounts Tower’s accomplished life. She conveys – in great detail – Tower’s biography, including the influences that stemmed from his childhood.
Through Tower’s his own words, he describes the treatchurous obstacles that plagued him as a kid. Without illuminating the reasons in this review, Tower says that food became his best pal, his companion and also adds that he read menus before books.
Food became a comfort (pardon the pun) to him, not in terms of gluttony, but in celebration of it. Through Tower’s verbal recitals into the past and several photos from yesterdecade, they help chronicle his experiences growing up. He built the foundation for his gastronomic passions from the challenges of his youth. Eventually, this leads him to become known as a father of modern American cuisine, and this self-taught chef brought two restaurants to massive prominence in one area of the country, the Bay Area: Chez Panisse in Berkeley during the 1970s and Stars in San Francisco during the 1980s.
Both places succeeded for different reasons, but Tower made food more dramatic and built menus based upon locally-grown ingredients and the personality of the region. The film has fun with photos from Stars’ heyday, as the restaurant’s name is truly apropos. Musical acts like Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys frequented the locale, that – inside - resembled an ocean liner from another planet, complete with an 80-foot bar. It was a theatrical experience, and Tower was its director.
Like in the movies and in life, events can appear in threes, and Tower does not escape this organic rule of the universe. The documentary records his third act in the industry, and we see and hear his firsthand experiences as well. Tower has a massive reservoir of culinary knowledge, and Tenaglia offers us a peak into his world in real time. Of course, pioneers who define their own directions can also be complicated, and Tower is no exception, as the film properly presents that side of him as well.
Tower’s visions of his craft surely appear on the big screen, but I could not exactly connect the dots from his 1970s and 1980s experiences to his influence in present-day eateries. Experts and semi-experts of modern restaurants might unquestionably and easily know how to draw these logical lines, but to laymen (like me), it is a blind spot.
Still, “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” successfully documents a fascinating life of a man who influenced a couple generations within the universe of the culinary arts, and after watching his film, it will probably persuade you to step inside a nice restaurant.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.