A celebrity-studded bio-doc of theatre producer and playboy Michael White, Gracie Otto’s documentary uncovers the unknown man in the middle – The Last Impresario.
The Last Of The Famous International Playboys by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
With a stellar cast list to rival James Toback’s Seduced And Abandoned (including Mick Jagger, Naomi Watts, John Cleese, Kate Moss, Anna Wintour, Yoko Ono and John Waters), The Last Impresario is a probing portrait of London theatre producer Michael White or, as he was known to his friends, Chalky. He’s perhaps one of the West End’s least illustrious lights, but nevertheless the life and soul of every celebrity party and the audacious money-man behind jaw-dropping shows of the Swinging Sixties, such as Oh! Calcutta!, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and later Dame Edna Everage and The Comic Strip Presents… He’s worked with them all, made it big and lost it again. But more importantly, he’s partied with them too.
From its opening gambit of a party during the Cannes Film Festival, a chance meeting with Mick Jagger and an album brimming with celebrity photos, The Last Impresario feels like a bends-inducing descent into luvvie-land, but quickly recovers its poise as we delve into White’s life – his immigrant parentage and abandonment to a Swiss boarding school, as well as his devil-may-care optimism that led him to take a chance on some of the Sixties’ most defining moments. White, it also emerges, was an inveterate socialite – interested in anyone and everyone and always the last to leave a party. Even into his tender years. And with dozens of wives and girlfriends to his name – all of whom speak fondly about him – he was a playboy who loved women. The bold and the beautiful. But much like his theatre productions, he didn’t seem to want to hold onto them, inhabiting not so much the present as the future.
A gambler, an incorrigible optimist and a prolific producer, it’s perhaps no surprise that some of his shows would turn out to be hits. One day. And it was White who created such iconic and enduring works as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Monty Python And The Holy Grail, endowed with an almost prophetic gift for divining future trends (and models, like Kate Moss) – always one step ahead of the rest. Since the early Seventies – before iPhones or even selfies – he’s even carried a mini-camera with him to document his milieu from the inside out. And while White’s photographs are liberally flashed in front of the camera for their potent whiff of celebrity glamour, it’s hard not to be nostalgic for the film The Last Impresario could have been – an alternative, low-key documentary uncovering the soul of the taciturn bon vivant through his images.
Despite a captivating subject, The Last Impresario makes for some fairly generic storytelling – piecing together White’s story chronologically through some parallax animated stills, celebrity talking heads, some access-all-areas guerrilla footage, and a 1996 Radio 4 interview. Yanking at the root of the celebrity beanstalk, Gracie Otto (sister to Reaching For The Moon star Miranda) seems to have hit upon a cunning new way to get a documentary funded. And it’s worked – with Naomi Watts executive producing and financing coming from the impresario’s friends who want to see him honoured. But while Otto makes for an interestingly feisty interviewer, with an unsettling Australian frankness, she sadly doesn’t have the nerve or the verve of her documentary’s hero. If the Sixties had sex, all we have, it seems, is celebrity. And while the optimism of those post-war years may have faded, The Last Impresario is still up for a good party.
The Last Impresario is released on 26th September 2014 in the UK