A self-made mogul who grew to rival (at least briefly) the mightiest U.S. entertainment power brokers, Garth Drabinsky brought two businesses — cinema chain Cineplex Odeon and theatrical presenter/production concern Livent — to considerable heights of market domination. But his excessive ambitions, overspending and willingness to fudge the numbers led each to a spectacular fall, and the man himself to an ongoing prison sentence for defrauding investors. Brisk, TV-targeted docu “Show Stopper” provides a colorful chronicle of a personality some regard with love, others with loathing, but who’s inspired a certain awe from all for his sheer chutzpah. Artscaster sales are signaled.
The enormously ambitious, driven Toronto native was bitten by the showbiz bug early on, wasting little time moving from law school to film production — notably two artistic peaks of the Canadian tax-shelter era, “The Silent Partner” and “The Changeling,” plus Oscar-nominated “Tribute.” He also moved aggressively into exhibiting pics by co-founding (with Nat Taylor) Cineplex Odeon, which survives today as Cineplex Entertainment, an enterprise of mostly second-run theaters that was a splashy success throughout Canada. But when Drabinsky decided to push on into the U.S. market, his fiscal overreaching and lack of caution ultimately cost him his own company.
That pattern repeated itself with Livent, to even more spectacular heights and depths. A true lover of legit theater (though the docu notably lacks footage of him discussing that in any depth), Drabinsky created the company to acquire venues and produce shows on a grand scale. A Toronto-based “Phantom of the Opera” got things off to a triumphant start, but the acclaim and Tonys accumulated by such epic endeavors as a lavish “Show Boat” revival and the expensive but underperforming “Ragtime” could only go so far to disguise their losses. It eventually emerged that Drabinsky had had books juggled to maintain an illusion of profitability.
Creatives like Harold Prince, Chita Rivera and Elaine Stritch here bemoan Drabinsky’s fate, being willing to overlook his wrongs in the face of his slavish dedication to theatrical excellence. However, no one questions that he always treated artists well; what made many others watch his downfall with no small glee was the fact that, toward everyone else, he was “tyrannical and abusive,” “arrogant,” “an egomaniac,” “a madman,” etc., to quote a few of the pic’s various interviewees. “I love his passion for projects; I just hate the way he treats people” is one of the more polite evaluations heard here. Even his fiercest foes, however, are reluctant to count Drabinsky out as a rebounding player once he’s at liberty again.
It’s a turbulent saga, with input from a lot of VIPs (including the subject himself), as well as a few insightful former flunkies. Having already made several docus about biz insiders (including Harvey Weinstein and Lew Wasserman), writer-helmer Barry Avrich is on terra firma telling a story that’s equal parts marquee lights and behind-the-scenes business. “Show Stopper” has a slightly tongue-in-cheek, tabloid brashness of tone that amplifies its subject’s larger-than-life qualities, even as its solid assembly unquestionably skews smallscreen.