Written by: Hannah Tran | November 18th, 2022
Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter (Rebecca Halpern, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
You may not be familiar with Charlie Trotter, but Rebecca Halpern’s documentary about the celebrity chef who dominated the Chicago restaurant scene for almost 25 years will make you wonder how you could ever not be. His long-running claim to the American culinary throne and his ruthless control of his kitchen made him infamous, but his influence in this realm is immeasurable. Spanning the entire course of his life, Love, Charlie is simultaneously an engaging story about pursuing one’s passion and a cautionary tale about the dangers that come with doing so.
If this is your first introduction to his life, the informational but emotional perspective of Love, Charlie serves as a compelling primer, but it also offers an impressively nuanced depiction of a highly complex figure who seemed unknowable even to those in his orbit. Much of Trotter’s story is pulled together from a wealth of illuminating interviews with him, his family, and those who both admired and despised him, often at once. The vast amount of time that it covers can cause the documentary to feel unfairly brushed over in some of its areas, but the dramatic power of his story never falters.
Halpern (making her feature debut) draws out extremely emotional anecdotes from her interviewees, yet the film remains objective in its ability to delve into the controversies Trotter was at the center of due to his often-unsympathetic personality. These were only worsened by his rapidly declining health in later years. But more than that, Halpern sympathetically explores what made him into the person he was and the eccentricities and sincerity that made so many feel such deep love for him.
While Love, Charlie crafts a compelling narrative to chew on, its structure and presentation are still a little coarse. The technical craft occasionally feels unfinished with a few moments of shoddy sound mixing and choppy editing. Moreover, the aesthetic choices are nowhere near as polished or inspired as something Trotter would create. And although originality and uniqueness in design are truly a tall order, this documentary feels as though it has all the means and intelligence to reach for them.
But these issues are mostly eclipsed by the power of the interviews, the energy of the edit, and the ample heart the filmmakers offer toward their subject. Although Charlie Trotter may not be here to see it, Love, Charlie is a film that certainly pays him the credit he deserves. It is a meticulous chronicle of his importance within the culinary world and a sympathetic portrait of his life and relationships beyond the kitchen.