Saturday, August 17

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary Review

By Emery Snyder @leeroy711
Director: Benjamin Berman
Starring: The Amazing Johnathan, Benjamin Berman, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic & Eric Andre
Hulu Original – June 16, 2019

Veteran of comedy television, Ben Berman (Lady Dynamite, Tim & Eric) documents the swan song tour of beloved comedian/magician, The Amazing Johnathan (Johnathan Szeles) … At least that seems to have been the original intent of this film. Very quickly however, we find that all is not as it seems. Szeles, who has been given a terminal heart diagnosis has apparently invited more than just Berman along to document his final days. Competition, skepticism and the ominous presence of the subject’s penchant for ‘slight-of-hand’ all play a part of this story’s (mis)direction.

Around fifteen minutes into the movie, we find that Johnathan has, unbeknownst to Berman, invited a second documentary team to make a film about him. Both camera crews are present, filming his tour, his health issues, his drug use and each other. The second crew is associated with Oscar Award winner, Simon Chinn (MAN ON WIRE, SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN). This immediately puts an entirely different twist on the film, pitting two storytellers against each other, in a marketplace that is already over-saturated with documentaries. As access to the subject is played out in this tug-of-war, even more filmmakers emerge, all working on the same subject matter. 

Is Johnathan simply trying to get the most out of his legacy? Or is this all part of some elaborate and boorish prank he’s playing? And if it is a prank, who is it even directed at? The filmmakers? The audience? And most importantly, how much of what is seen here can even be taken as factual? Is Johnathan even really dying? At one point, Berman’s friend even metaphorically speculates, “Put this in real life terms…” as if magic, comedy and/or filmmaking are not real jobs and terminal illness is not real life.

This metatextuality of the film, for better or worse, couldn’t help but immediately change what the story was about. And in that, I was a bit disappointed. I’ve been a fan of The Amazing Johnathan since I caught one of his acts on a late-night stand-up show in the nineties. He’s always been a fascinating character with a wholly original act and I would love to see a ‘bio-doc’ of sorts about his life. But the moment that the second crew shows up, the subject of this doc changes to include Berman as well as the film itself. Throughout the runtime, we see more and more of Berman questioning and pontificating what story he’s actually trying to tell, and less of Johnathan. I’m quite sure that Berman’s friends and family end up with more screen time Johnathan’s. All of this coupled with the additional metatextuality of the streaming wars and I was quickly reminded of the dueling Fyre Festival docs released within a week of each other by Hulu and Netflix earlier this year. This still makes for a very interesting doc, but I constantly felt that I was missing out on what is likely a great story about a fascinating performer.

At the end of the day, if you take this film at face value, I think it served as a learning experience and an exploration for the filmmaker that likely began this process with an entirely different idea about what kind of story he was telling. It actually reminds me of early Herzog in that respect. I think most of the best documentaries ever made went wildly off the rails at some point of their production. This one is especially unique because it essentially serves as its own ‘making of’ special feature.

But on the other hand, I’m still not entirely sure how candid or authentic any of this is. Johnathan is a self-described prankster. And the competition in the genre today almost requires filmmakers to have a hook that can shine though to the audience. The only question left is “to what end?” This film has no interest in answering it.

Emery’s Rating
3.5 out of 5 Stars
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