Within seconds of Gracie Otto’s heady documentary, The Last Impresario, you’re thrown head-first into the world of Michael White, the most famous man you’ve never heard of. Within minutes, the name-dropping begins, cutting from one famous face to another: Anna Wintour to John Cleese, Yoko Ono to John Waters, Kate Moss to Richard O’Brien. It’s like being out in the smoking area of a Soho cocktail party, listening with smiling reverence as these people swap anecdotes about the charismatic Michael White.
The Last Impresario’s tagline is ‘The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of’, but the sheer number and diversity of his famous friends means anybody watching the film will recognise more than a few of those in Michael’s address book. Kate Moss recalls with a giggle that Michael was the only one who could “keep up with her” at parties; John Waters, in typical fashion, praises his subversive edge and his great suits. The giddy edit cuts from anecdote to anecdote with a constant recurring motif of photographs (Michael was an obsessive photographer), and the viewer is bombarded with photo after photo, famous face after famous face.
Gracie Otto, a young Australian filmmaker, who met Michael White at Cannes in 2010, does a good job of making a film which goes beyond engrossing the viewer, but actually making them feel a part of this swanky, sparkly world of the rich, famous and beautiful. There is little to no time to think, as the deluge of household names regale you with tales of the charismatic Michael White. Amongst this wave of admiration, Otto crafts a brilliant character study of the “enfant terrible of Theatreland.”
Michael White is a fascinating character, constantly working and putting on shows, all with a delightfully subversive streak. Even now, in his late 70s, he is still possessed by an exhaustive ‘life force’, a desire to shock, delight, adore, and be adored. Upon leaving the screening room in Soho, I wanted to walk around the streets taking in the sights, sounds and debauchery that historic Theatreland, Michael’s old stomping ground, has to offer.
Towards the end of the film, Otto includes a segment on Michael’s childhood, which verges on pop psychology as friends and family discuss his constant need for company, possibly as a result of being left at a boarding school in Switzerland when he was a young child. There’s also a brief implication that Michael is a man who wants to bury his true feelings in a sparkly world of celebrities and cocktail parties.
The film’s closing moments of Michael, who now uses a wheelchair, taking to the stage to hand out an award is used to sobering effect. Gracie Otto, who is in her twenties, is clearly very fond of Michael and their relationship does not feel voyeuristic or uncomfortable – it seems to be a genuine friendship. In contrast to the rest of the piece, the film’s ending leaves the audience with a lingering, almost meditative, look at aging.
The Last Impresario is refreshingly free from nostalgia, instead emphasizing Michael White’s love for the zeitgeist and, even now at nearly eighty years old, his desire to still run in contemporary London circles. White is certainly not a wistful character, tottering around Soho desperately trying to recapture his ’70s heyday. In fact, his refusal to slow down his party-going lifestyle, and desire to surround himself with glamour and adoration, comes off as rather admirable.
The Last Impresario is a fascinating character study and pays homage not only to Michael White, but to the glitter and grime of Soho itself. It’s an hour well spent visiting the West End’s rich and famous and certainly makes one want to learn more about the still-quite-mysterious Michael White, a man who continues to know everybody and spark the interest of those he doesn’t yet.
The Last Impresario is in selected cinemas from Friday, 26th September.