Film review: THE LAST IMPRESSARIO, from Built For Speed

The documentary The Last Impresario, which was written and directed by Miranda Otto’s sister Gracie, – chronicles the career of theatre and film producer Michael White.  If that name isn’t familiar to you, don’t worry as this film trades on the idea that White is the most famous person we’ve never heard of.  Consequently, the film takes great pleasure in revealing White’s phenomenally successful and influential life.

A mix of talking heads, archival footage and White’s vast collection of photos, the film is a fascinating document of a remarkable life, a vibrant theatre culture particularly in the 1960’s and 70’s and the world of celebrity. White knows and has partied with everyone whether it’s Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Jack Nicholson, Kate Moss or Naomi Watts and a lot of this film is spent simply marvelling at his galaxy of superstar friends. The film suggests that he was able to inculcate himself into this celebrity world through his theatre success, his willingness to party to all hours and because of his friendly, gentle and unpretentious demeanour.  Despite being almost 80 and having had a stroke, he still parties all night with people like Kate Moss.

White became involved with theatre – traditional productions and the emerging avant-garde – in London in the late 1950’s. It was with more edgy productions, however, that he made a name for himself.  He was one of the first producers to champion Monty Python, taking them from university halls to the West End and to the cinema screen with Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  He was also behind controversial productions such as The Rocky Horror Show, the scandalous nude extravaganza Oh! Calcutta and Barry Humphries’ first stage performances as Dame Edna Everage among many others.  The film reveals that in the 1960’s, his maverick productions played a pivotal role in fostering the emerging counter-culture and he’s even described as the Diaghilev of the time.

Gracie Otto delves briefly into his childhood and suggests that it was a troubled one marred by chronic asthma and separation from his family when he was sent to boarding school in Switzerland. The film also suggests that because his upbringing was different from others in the British theatre, he was able to bring a fresh approach that contributed to his success.

Although a little repetitive – there are a few too many Jack Nicholson photos – the film is never dull and has a bustling energy appropriate to the White’s hectic life.  The least successful parts of the film occur when Otto speaks directly to White whose ailing health makes it difficult for him to recall some of the details of his life or focus on her questions; much of the time her inquiries seem to irritate him.

A few small complaints aside, this is a fascinating documentary about a man who, much like New York photographer Bill Cunningham, has flourished amid the treacherous world of celebrity, made a remarkable contribution to popular culture and maintained the respect and affection of those around him.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Documentary/ biopic.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Gracie Otto.

Release date: 26th June 2014

Running time:  85 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 


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