Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

Distributor: Hulu

Director: Benjamin Berman

Writers: Benjamin Berman, Clark Baker (Creative Consultant), Joshua Cohen (Creative Consultant)

Composer: Zack Wright

Starring: The Amazing Johnathan, Benjamin Berman, Anastasia Synn

Genre: Documentary

The Amazing Johnathan made a splash in the magic world with his shock-jock tactics and third act twists, masterfully merging his illusions with comedy. Gracing various variety shows across the world during the eighties and nineties, it comes as no surprise that there was a little boy that grew up in admiration of his magical buffoonery: Benjamin Berman.

A cardiomyopathy diagnosis in 2014 prematurely ended the Amazing Johnathan’s career, with the entertainer effectively retiring due to his health condition. Though in 2017, after… well, still being alive despite only initially given a year to live, the Amazing Johnathan decided to make a come back tour–a feat which inspired Benjamin Berman to make his first documentary. After all, following his idol around was a dream come true for him. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything, it seems.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: The Amazing Jonathan is a comedic illusionist. There is some footage of his act, which involves tricking the audience into believing he is causing bodily harm, or removing body parts.

Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb is dropped a few times, along with the s-word.

Drug/Alcohol References: Strong drug usage. Jonathan’s use of speed (meth) is talked about regularly. We see him smoke it on screen, along with other people, although the pipe itself is censored by a black box. As an act, Jonathan pretends he is snorting cocaine. Alcohol is consumed–sometimes it is pretend. Some pills are taken for medical reasons.

Sexual Content:  None.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Content: The film questions the nature of biographical documentaries and whether they are effectively profiting from someone’s demise. We witness someone coerced into taking drugs, a topic which the film takes lightly.

Positive Content: Thematically this film drifts off into various directions, to the point that every individual may take home a different lesson. Though what is most apparent is its endearing tenacity to not give up in the face of hardship.

Review

I know what you’re thinking. This is a straightforward documentary, right? As the title suggests, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary sounds rather self-explanatory. Is this film a documentary about the Amazing Johnathan? Yes. Does it chronicle parts of his life? Yes. Does it ask the hard questions? Yes. Is it insightful? Oh yes! Does it do what every documentary should do? Yes… but no. No, no, no, no, NO!

Everything that could possibly go wrong with a documentary… goes wrong.

And it’s deliriously entertaining to watch it all unfold!

This is one of those films where it’s better the less you know. It would be a shame to detail exactly what occurs in this documentary because it’s such a delight to partake in Berman’s journey.

There are two main ways filmmakers approach the subject they’re documenting: either they already know the narrative they wish to tell and then film to conform to their script (this style is popular with Michael Moore), or they take an investigative approach using only a bare outline, and follow where the story leads (as seen with Louis Theroux). Benjamin Berman is very (very) much the latter type, to the extent that the narrative effectively runs away from him, leaving him to hilariously deal with whatever scraps he has left.

If The Amazing Johnathan Documentary were a stage play, then its theatrical twin would be The Play That Goes Wrong. It’s a hilarious yet catastrophic production where the actors forget their lines, the props fail, and the set collapses. Yet obviously all the mistakes are intended, and eventually all the resulting chaos becomes a bothersome hindrance to actually telling a good story. Not so with The Amazing Johnathan Documentary.

It’s a bizarre experience to behold because it brutally exposes the real lie behind the documentary genre–the one type of film that we typically trust to expose the truth: that real life doesn’t come in a neat little box that makes for a nice piece narrative of storytelling. Despite their palpable subject matter, documentaries still follow the same structure as their fictional film counterparts. As Berman scrambles desperately to follow suit, in search of the perfect ending to his utter nightmare of a film project, he ironically creates the most truthful documentary of all.

Unlike The Play That Goes Wrong, Berman’s struggles are authentic and incredibly endearing, eventually adding to the quality of the story that is told (albeit haphazardly). We’ve all had that moment in life where things get so tough that we’re faced with the option to either stay and fight, or flee. Thankfully Berman decides to keep filming. Yes, the movie is still about the Amazing Johnathan, but not in the way that we’d normally expect, and the film is richer for bucking the traditional tale. If you want a mere retelling of his life, there’s always Wikipedia.

This is the perfect documentary for people who don’t typically like documentaries, mainly because it’s unlike any documentary you’re likely to have seen (even though it’s oddly kinda about documentaries). It’s a documentary inside a documentary, inside a documentary… and maybe, possibly inside yet another documentary… There’s just a lot of documenting happening here! Berman doesn’t just break the fourth wall. He busts through that looking glass like a fireman, shattering every single shard in his attempt to salvage whatever footage he can in his self-imploding circumstances, in such a meta-tastic way that would impress even the writers of Supernatural.

As Annie Hall challenged and revolutionized romantic comedies, so too does The Amazing Johnathan Documentary for the documentary genre. Yet it’s the proverbial lightning in a bottle–to try and repeat its accidental style would not only be contrived, but it would lose its endearing charm. It’s like that school project where you were allowed to speak for three minutes on whatever subject you liked; it was refreshing the first time you heard someone deliver a speech about not knowing what to talk about, but after listening to the third person with the same “brilliant” idea, the novelty quickly became stale.

Yet as it stands, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is the most unique documentary I’ve witnessed. I’ve watched over 100 films in 2019 now, and this one shot straight up to the top of my list. I hope it wins an Oscar (and if you’re a Hulu subscriber and watch the film, you’ll discover why that result would be amusingly fitting).

HOWEVER!

I have to give a HUGE warning.

I can’t recommend this film to everyone.

This movie does contain a significant amount of drug usage. Given the amount of times I’ve written the word “documentary” in this review, I hope you understand the problem here. It’s real. It’s not Requiem for a Dream where actors portray issues surrounding drug usage within a narrative context that highlights their life-destroying capabilities.  

While several people within the documentary express their dismay or outright condemnation of the act, the film over all does take a more light-hearted tone. It would be apt to say that it’s treated as a bit of a joke for a good five minutes of its runtime. The subject is approached in an honest and interesting way, though the story’s deviation does feel unnecessary and rather irresponsible. While many people die from drug addiction, likewise many people have a try and don’t experience anything grossly negative. This documentary displays the latter; without focusing on the heavy consequences that can result from such behavior, it therefore unintentionally lightens the seriousness of the subject as a whole.

You know what causes you to stumble. If watching people recreationally take drugs is enough to tempt you into performing behaviors that you wish to avoid, then please don’t watch this movie. It is a shame, as this is a wonderfully creative film, though sadly for some it should rightfully be ignored.

Positives

+ It's not your average documentary. + Goes in weird and wild directions. + Hilarious. + Has that endearing underdog charm. + Covers the subject matter with a completely fresh perspective. + One of the best films of the year due to its genre-breaking antics.

Negatives

- It gets distracted for a number of minutes, taking a light-hearted approach to drug usage. - May disappoint viewers that just want a traditional chronological narrative.

The Bottom Line

Berman’s documentary inadvertently replicates the Amazing Johnathan’s magic acts; deconstructing the illusion and subverting expectations, resulting in something utterly hilarious. It’s like no documentary you’ve ever seen before, shattering the fourth wall, challenging the genre, and questioning the ethics of the art itself. Though Berman’s unique take is ultimately tarnished with a drug-stained side quest which might be too much of a stumbling block for some viewers.

 

8.7

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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