City of Gold (2015) / Documentary

MPAA Rated: R for some language
Running Time: 92 min.

Cast: Jonathan Gold, Calvin Trillin, Ruth Reichl
Director: Laura Gabbert
Screenplay: Laura Gabbert
Review published March 30, 2016

Jonathan Gold is the current Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic for The Los Angeles Times, and former restaurant critic for LA Weekly and Gourmet magazine.  He specializes in finding great ethnic cuisine not in the fancy, upscale restaurants, but hole-in-the-wall establishments like those tucked away in strip malls, out in food trucks, or push carts on sidewalks and in public parking lots.  Cruising around in his well-traveled pickup, his gift for seeking out the hidden gems in and around the Los Angeles area is only equaled by the beauty and expressiveness he brings to his writing.  One rave review from Gold will have struggling local eateries busy the next day, and for months, if not years, beyond.

Although it's a film about Gold, it's really a celebration of Los Angeles, specifically the L.A. that Gold sees in all its many facets through his own eyes, and his own palate, transcribed into his own words.  If you don't really care for Los Angeles, with its various blocks full of nondescript shops in ethnic parts of the city you don't really understand the culture of, his writing makes you take a second look.  You'll probably come to embrace all of the diversity and many flavors of the vast melting pot in a way that makes you a Los Angelino through and through, even if it's for just the brief day that you visit.

Yes, Gold is a food critic, but, as he asserts, if you can enjoy the food, and learn its history, you can enjoy the culture that made it, feeling like you have a shared interest in a kind of cuisine that has been passed down through the generations, or a hybrid of various flavors that could only come from a gifted chef with the passion, drive and talent to blend styles like hip-hop blends loops and samples.  It should come as no surprise to learn that Gold once wrote about hip-hop in the 1990s, and grew up as a musician -- a cellist who would use his talent to play in a punk band. Combining his encyclopedic knowledge about food with his anthropologist mind for cultures and peoples, and you have a report on a dining experience that's every bit a work of art as the delectable dishes lovingly presented from some of the city's previously unknown eating spots.

City of Gold is nicely packaged by veteran documentarian Laura Gabbert, who met Gold after winning a dinner with him as an auction prize for a school fundraiser, and then found him and his life fascinating enough to build a documentary around.  Gabbert uses overhead maps to describe many of the various neighborhoods in greater metropolitan Los Angeles where you can find the several spots that Gold makes a pit stop in.  Quite a fair enactment given Gold's articles, as well as the sections of he paper they appear in, are really guides for residents and visitors on how best to enjoy the vast city they're published in. He speaks, not as a snob, but as a friend -- a very articulate and descriptive friend.  Readers love finding those proverbial truffles that Gold has sniffed out, while restaurateurs view him as either a celebrity or a savior, like King Midas, whose every touch turns into, fittingly, Gold.

If you've never been to Los Angeles, it's the kind of movie that will make you want to go.  And if you've lived there your whole life, it will make you rediscover LA as if you're a tourist. You connect to Jonathan Gold through his writing, and Gold connects to the city through his diligent desire to explore it.  Through the surrogate, you find yourself also connected to the city when Gold plants the flag of conquest and tells all his fellow LA residents to follow.

While on this topic, I'll admit to a certain bias in my enjoyment of this movie, because it is a film that heralds the role of the critic in shedding light on the treasures you never knew existed.  It's really the one thing that truly great critics can do, and why learned reviewers do matter: they expose their readers to things they haven't the time, inclination or background to discover on their own.  Sure, you can go to Yelp and read a litany of conflicting reviews of eateries from a host of unknown and largely anonymous people who've only had one experience to share. But follow the road map as Jonathan Gold lays out, and you'll not only have some of the best food you've ever had in places you never knew existed, but you'll probably learn a great deal more about the planet on which we all live, and do it without ever having to leave the ever-changing city full of vibrant communities who've emigrated here from every walk of life. 

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo