Written and directed by Barry Avrich. PG. 96 min. Opens Sept. 21.
If Garth Drabinsky were a Shakespearean character, his tragic flaw would be over-weening ambition. That’s the impression left by Barry Avrich’s engrossing, blow-by-blow documentary about the jailed Toronto impresario’s rise and fall. Never content to be a movie-house innovator (with Cineplex) or a dynamic theatre producer (with Livent), Drabinsky always had to build empires—mainly with stockholders’ money. His downfall came when he cooked the books to fool investors and keep his imperial dreams afloat.
Avrich uses archival interviews with Drabinsky to track his life from a childhood bout with polio—an ordeal that bred a bloody-minded determination—through his early days as a film exhibitor, when his ruthless streak emerged. After he was ousted from Cineplex, the multiplex chain he co-founded, Drabinsky exited carrying its live-theatre division, Livent, and the Canadian rights to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. He used Phantom’s seemingly endless profits as the foundation for a wildly ambitious string of big-budget Broadway musicals that won Tony Awards but lost money.
Montreal native Avrich—whose past films profiled moguls Lew Wasserman and Harvey Weinstein—relates the Drabinsky saga in a jokey razzle-dazzle style, abetted by breezy narration from another Toronto showman, Soulpepper Theatre’s Albert Schultz. It can’t quite disguise the fact that the movie is heavy with talking heads. There’s no shortage of Drabinsky detractors, from old Cineplex-era adversary Sid Sheinberg to burned Livent employees. In between their “Garth Vader” anecdotes, Avrich pointedly inserts clips from Mel Brooks’s classic satire of Broadway scam-artists, The Producers.
Drabinsky, however, was no fly-by-night charlatan and we also hear from his admirers—mainly aging stars like Diahann Carroll and Chita Rivera, whose careers benefitted from his projects. No one interviewed questions his dedication to producing first-class theatre, but all would agree with actress Elaine Stritch’s assessment of how he did it. He was, she mutters sadly, a “damn fool.”