Thursday 14 November 2019


When notorious shock magician The Amazing Johnathan was diagnosed with a terminal illness and given a year to live, three years later he invites a camera crew to follow him around as he attempts to make a comeback.

Johnathan, a shock magician whose act included him performing acts of bodily harm on himself like hacking his arm up with a butchers knife, is probably best known outside of his long running Las Vegas shows for his appearances on the Penn and Teller TV shows that brought his brand of extreme tricks and dark humour to an international audience. Now dealing with the effects of his 2014 cardiomyopathy diagnosis which requires an intensive course of pills that make him retch, coupled with a more than casual drink and drug problem that worries his wife Anastasia, an urge to perform along with a desire to make money sees him ignore doctor's advice and hit the circuit again to face a legion of fans unaware of the extent of his woes. In the opening minutes of this film we see a clearly weak Johnathan declare on stage he was told he has "a year to live", met with laughter from some of the audience expecting some of his trademark black humour to follow, instead flatly replying with "not a joke".

But this film is not a document of The Amazing Johnathan's (real name Johnathan Szeles) illness, recovery, or tour. No, this film is about the megalomania and vanity behind the man, and the strained relationship that forms between Szeles and the director of this film, Ben Berman. For the first third of the film it is a fairly traditional documentary, charting the history and day to day life of Szeles as a performer, but this format falls victim to his need for fame when it's callously revealed to Berman (by Johnathan) that there is not only a second documentary crew following Szeles around, but they're supposedly linked to documentary super producer Simon Chinn and his Oscar winning Searching for Sugarman/Man on Wire team and are being given priority. It's at this point that Berman steps out in front of the camera for the first time, and the focus of this film shifts entirely.

I first saw Ben Berman's film at this year's Sheffield Documentary Festival (Doc/Fest), and boy, what an overwhelmingly pleasant surprise it was. I won't delve too far into the revelations of the film, as part of the joy is seeing the sheer egomaniacal madness in Berman's film unravel before him. What makes The Amazing Johnathan Documentary such an addictive watch is the Exit Through The Gift Shop-like rollercoaster ride we are witness to, as Berman helps to salvage a film out of the wreckage of Szeles's duplicity towards him, and I'm using that word in the loosest sense. Documentary fans will appreciate the truly unique relationship that develops between the documentarian and his subject, as Berman contemplates smoking meth on camera with Szeles to hopefully elevate his standing with him; and comedy fans will just enjoy the lunacy of it all.

It's a bold, potentially catastrophic decision to make a film called The Amazing Johnathan Documentary and not have him be the sole focus; but although this may alienate some of his hardcore fans wanting a more traditional story of his life (don't worry, that doc is also out there), it's a spark of genius on Berman's part to have the camera turned back onto himself, Adaptation style. Part Andy Kaufman and part Charlie Kaufman, Berman tries to tell the true story of who Szeles is by telling his own personal story as a filmmaker who wants to deliver the best documentary he can about a subject who treats him like dirt once the higher profile team appear, and who might even be lying about his condition.

This is Berman's feature debut, but he's been working for years as a director and writer for Funny or Die's short sketches, and it shows. He's got fantastic comic timing and is well aware of how to craft a moment, filling this film with countless rug pulls and comic and dramatic revelations delivered at just the right moment. Again, no spoilers here, but as he faces up to the fact that the perfect resolution to his underdog film would be either the death of The Amazing Johnathan or the reveal that he wasn't dying at all, the conclusion he comes to that would make him and most of all, Johnathan, happy is pure documentary bliss.

Is this a profile of infamous Las Vegas magician The Amazing Johnathan? Not exactly. Do you end up learning more about the real Johnathan Szeles, and his documentarian, than you expected and/or probably wanted? Undoubtedly. Ben Berman deserves praise for his willingness to play with the established rules of documentary to give us what is an exciting, bold, playful, and above all funny film, that shows what happens when a fragile ego and desire to entertain crash headfirst into each other. Whether those things belong to Szeles or Berman is up to you to decide.

An absolute must see.


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