The Amazing Johnathan Documentary examines a magician at the end of his life — and the filmmaker documenting him | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary examines a magician at the end of his life — and the filmmaker documenting him

click to enlarge Director Ben Berman and The Amazing Johnathan - PHOTO: HULU
Photo: Hulu
Director Ben Berman and The Amazing Johnathan
After the 2017 Fyre Festival debacle, it was only a matter of time before a documentary crew capitalized on the mayhem. When two documentaries on the subject — one released on Hulu and one released on Netflix — came out just days apart from each other, it caused a bit of a frenzy. Which was better? Which got more access? It raised questions about how two documentaries can get made at the same time and illuminated the different versions of the truth people tell on camera.

The Amazing Jonathan Documentary started as a story about the title magician, but eventually pivoted to director Ben Berman as he's driven into an existential crisis when he learns he's one of three filmmakers covering the subject at the same time.

The Amazing Johnathan (stage name of John Szeles) reached success in the '80s and '90s with his absurd comedy and magic shows. He performed on late-night talk shows, worked with Criss Angel, and had a year-round residency in Las Vegas for over a decade. In 2014, he announced his retirement due to a heart condition which doctors said gave him a year to live. Surprised to still find the magician alive in 2017, Berman began filming Johnathan in his home, and eventually on the road when he begins touring again.


Johnathan is confused as to why he's still around, spending his days wading into the pool fully clothed and refusing to give up his longtime love of methamphetamine. Berman figures he's capturing the portrait of a man at the end of his life, giving it all he's got despite his circumstances. Everything changes when Johnathan tells Berman that he's allowing another documentary crew, a more famous and successful one, to film his life as well (this crew premieres their movie while Berman is filming, even though they started later.) And that's before he introduces a third documentarian, an amateur filmmaker whose main job is professionally juggling chainsaws. 
Berman is left scratching his head. Why should he continue filming his documentary when this more successful crew exists? Is his story more interesting? What is his story? Why did he even start making this documentary in the first place? Why did he start making movies at all? Should he smoke meth with The Amazing Johnathan?

These are all questions Berman asks himself, on camera, as he paces around frantically. He also asks these questions of his parents, friends, and talking head interview subjects (which include Eric Andre and "Weird Al" Yankovic). He starts to lose grip on his film and subject, who at one point asks Berman, "You've been watching Vice again, haven't you?"

For better or for worse, Berman decides to make the complications part of his movie, even when the other documentarians aren't compliant. The documentary becomes as much about the making of the documentary itself as much as it's about the subject. It becomes a bit tedious when, in the third act, Berman is still explaining to new people how he's filming a documentary at the same time as two other filmmakers just to gauge their shocked reactions. It's shocking, but not as shocking as he thinks.

Part of Berman's dilemma is that he feels he's exploiting Johnathan's life and potential death for the sake of a good documentary, which, to be fair, he kind of is. Johnathan asks Berman point-blank if he's upset his subject didn't die in the time frame of his documentary. Then again, there are so many exploitative documentaries that never acknowledge or grapple with this idea that it's refreshing to it unfold onscreen.


Whether you end up agreeing with Berman's filmmaking techniques or not, he ends up making something wholly unique. He might not be the only one tackling the subject, but he's the only one making a documentary about the documentary that he's making.

The Amazing Jonathan Documentary opens Fri., Aug. 16 at The Parkway Theater, 644 Parkway Ave., McKees Rocks. communityreelartscenter.org. It also streams on Hulu beginning Fri., Aug. 16.

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