Around this time every year, I go through critics’ top 10 lists to see which great films to add to my watchlist. This year, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary kept popping up over and over again. I’d heard of it – isn’t that the documentary about some magician pulling an Andy Kauffman or something? Kind of, but not really. It’s a strangely beautiful and insanely meta-story about a man and his documentarians. We have been blessed with an incredibly generous supply of wonderful docs about the state of the world in 2019, but The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is the only one I’ve seen that is ultimately about the state of the documentary film industry in 2019.
That’s not what it was meant to be, though. It was supposed to be a simple documentary about a dying man.
There’s a scene in the hilarious Lonely Island mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping where Connor4Real (Andy Samberg) has a run-in with a rival behind the scenes of an awards show. The tense standoff, however, quickly turns into a suffocating logjam of camera crews, everyone forced to elbow for simple breathing room as Connor’s rival repeatedly talks into the wrong camera. Turns out, just about every pop star at the show has their own reality TV show or someone making a documentary about them. We’ve long left the days when Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses could get into a secret fight behind the scenes of the MTV Music Awards. Today, they’d all have camera crews following them, and, as Connor discovers, that’s a lot of people in one tight area.
It’s an exaggerated moment in an over-the-top comedy, but The Amazing Johnathan Documentary director Ben Berman might wince at the sight of it these days. Bumping into other camera crews while making your own documentary? He pretty much lived that reality for nearly half a decade, except he wasn’t tiptoeing past colleagues making completely different projects. No, he was in direct competition with rivals making their own documentaries about the same person he was. What the heck does one do in such a bizarre situation? Turn the camera on yourself, of course.
That’s how we got The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, a film truly deserving of the label “2019’s weirdest doc.” Many of this year’s hottest documentaries – American Factory, Out for Blood in SiliconValley, One Child Nation, The Kingmaker, For Sama – strive to contextualize the trends shaping the world today. They operate as a fly on the wall, gazing at the fucked up historical moment we’re living through. The Amazing Johnathan, however, is a snapshot of what it likes to be a documentary filmmaker in 2019, a time when the market is booming and the barrier of entry is so low that “I made a documentary” almost feels like the new version of “I finally wrote my screenplay.” (At one point in the film, Berman is approached by a comedy club patron who volunteers, essentially, “Yeah, I made a documentary last year. How’s your’s going?”)
Let’s back up.
(Bojack Horseman theme song voice) Back in the 80s, John Edward Szeles was a very famous stand-up comedian/magician/prankster/prop comic known as “The Amazing Johnathan.” You name a late-night TV show from that era, he probably did a guest appearance on it at least once. He was mostly known for consistently convincing audiences he’d genuinely hurt himself, like shoving a straw through his tongue or slicing through his arm with a knife. He was perfectly fine, of course. It was all part of the act. How’d he do it? “That was an illusion,” he’d say.
Skip way ahead to 2014. Decades of cocaine and meth abuse funded by a long-standing Vegas residency seemingly came to an end when Szeles shockingly revealed on stage that he’d been diagnosed with a terminal heart condition and given one year to live. Rather than disappear quietly into the night, he announced a farewell tour, fully aware it could mean him dying from a heart attack on stage.
Berman – an editor/director with credits on various AdultSwim, Funny or Die, Comedy Central, and FX shows but mostly known for directing 61 episodes of the satirical talk show Comedy Bang! Bang! – received a brief email from Szeles asking him to document the farewell tour. He’d never made a feature-length documentary before, and he didn’t initially think that’s what Szeles was asking him to do.
“I thought I was gathering footage for a short film,” Berman recently told Empire Magazine, “about a magician confronting his mortality with humor and seriousness. And then, right before we were going on tour, he let me know about the other crew.”
Yeah, Berman wasn’t the only one making an Amazing Johnathan documentary. The Oscar-winning team behind Searching for Sugarman and Man on Wire was working on one as well, or so Szeles claimed. In fact, as the months passed Berman learned of not just one but several rival Amazing Johnathan documentaries – all of them thinking they were making a movie about a dying man, none of them quite prepared for Johnathan to survive several years beyond his dead-by-date.
This is when The Amazing Johnathan Documentary shifts from a story about a dying comedian and turns into a gonzo exploration of professional rivalry and an existential examination of why anyone would even be drawn to make a film about Johnathan Szeles, a rather prickly fella who lives in a mansion, verbally abuses his longtime girlfriend, and spends a good amount of his time getting high. There’s a portrait of addiction there, sure, but should Berman be the one to paint it?
Archival footage of Szeles in his stand-up heyday quickly gives way to Berman’s own home videos, the documentarian putting himself into the picture as he searches for an answer to something he should have already figured out: why does he even want to make this documentary? There’s a reason, we learn, he is drawn to stories about death, but he’s far from the only one serving that same impulse. So, in order to truly make his documentary stand out, he pushes himself to certain extremes.
He actually floats some of his ideas past character witnesses like Weird Al Yankovic, Eric Andre, and Carrot Top, all of whom thought they were just there to talk about their old pal Johnathan and don’t quite know what to say when they hear what the hell is going on. Some of the choices Ben makes from that point forward are the kinds of things you instantly regret. However, they are the actions of a man who can’t tell what’s real anymore, and as a viewer, you’ll probably feel the same way.
Is Johnathan faking his illness? Are those other documentary crews really who Johnathan says they are? Is this all some kind of Andy Kauffman prank? Is Szeles just fucking with Berman? And how in the hell does a chainsaw juggler factor into this?
A magician never tells, but you if you watch the documentary you’ll find out.
“It’s a movie about Johnathan, and it turns into a movie about me, but ultimately it’s also a movie about the state of documentary filmmaking in 2019,” Berman told Empire. “It’s a golden age of non-fiction storytelling. There are only so many stories. And that’s what I lucked into, or un-lucked into: I figured out a way to have problems be value.”
Just make sure to stick through the credits. In a story full of so many twists, there’s one last one that drops halfway through the credits. It’s, in retrospect, the only way something like The Amazing Johnathan Documentary could have ended.
Where to Stream: I watched The Amazing Johnathan Documentary on Hulu. Check JustWatch for current availability.