Travis Leamons // Film Critic
THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY
The older we get, the more we question what we read, what we watch, and what we’re told. This and the proliferation of disinformation and hoaxes spread by the media has exacerbated anxiety tenfold. Wrapping your head around what someone said in a tweet is only trumped by the strangeness that exists in truth.
The documentary film presents itself as the perfect incubator for giving the unusual in a medium famous for make-believe. However, the sub-genre is not perfect. Because a particular viewpoint is being projected, a documentary can never be completely objective of its subject. Then some seemingly implode only to usher a twist that even M. Night Shyamalan couldn’t expect. Documentaries that can accomplish this as you mouth the letters “WTF,” well, those are movies that offer big surprises in small packages. THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY is that documentary for 2019.
So, what makes this Johnathan guy so amazing? The Amazing Johnathan is the stage name for John Szeles, a comedian magician that grew in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s with his appearances on Letterman and touring the country. It wasn’t until ten minutes into the documentary that I remembered his comedy routine. All it took was an old clip of Johnathan shoving something up his nose and pulling it out of his ear to trigger a memory.
Ben Berman must have had a similar tinge of the illusionist’s halcyon days. He decides to make a documentary on The Amazing Johnathan when he learns the magician has a terminal heart condition and only one year to live. The diagnosis forces him to retire, and Berman is there to record his final days. Flash forward three years, and Johnathan is still very much alive. Rather than spend his days lounging inside his luxurious home, Johnathan prepares a comeback tour.
OK, I already know what some of you are starting to think: Johnathan is an illusionist, and his heart condition is likely an attention-grabbing hoax. That’s one conclusion, but don’t be so quick to jump. Berman continues with the project, though withholds his suspicions from Johnathan. Ultimately, he must insert himself into the story as the narrative unspools out of his hands. When Berman thinks he has some measure of control, here’s Johnathan causing headaches and filmmaking chaos.
How chaotic? Berman discovers Johnathan has hired another documentary crew to follow him on tour. Say what now? Oh, and the crew is tied to an Oscar-winning producer. This reveal becomes more critical as the documentary incurs one hiccup after another. That’s part of the innate brilliance of THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN. We begin to wonder if Berman is being duped and if the story blurs the lines of truth and fiction. Perhaps that is why the opening titles proclaim, “everything in this film is strictly based on the available facts.” The filmmakers are already cautioning viewers. Once they see Johnathan and his unpredictable tendencies, they’ll understand.
The documentary may have been envisioned as a tribute to a master illusionist, but the final product is even more astonishing than its subject. It starts all cookie-cutter with its VHS archival footage of John performing and present-day interviews (with notable stage performers Penn Jillette, “Weird” Al” Yankovic and Carrot Top). Then, as the overall tone starts to shift, so does the direction. To say more would spoil the magic.
THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN is that surprising film of 2019 where frauds and fantasy intermingle with factuality. It is a puzzle, a master class in subterfuge and non-fiction filmmaking, and worthy of its amazing status. We feel like we are coasting on The Amazing Johnathan’s magic carpet ride only to have the rug pulled out from under us. But what an entertaining trip it is.
THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY arrives August 16 on Hulu and in select theaters.