John Edward Szeles, better known as The Amazing Johnathan, is a high-profile renegade magician who’s appeared in numerous venues as well as in movies and various celebrity shows. In 2014, Johnathan was diagnosed with a heart condition called cardiomyopathy and given a year to live. Several years later, however, he was still around. Director Ben Berman decided that an infamous magician on borrowed time would be a good subject for a documentary.
Of course, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary turns out to be a lot less straightforward than the above introduction suggests. It seems that it’s not enough to make an ordinary documentary these days. It helps if there’s an air of mystery and a heavy dose of “meta,” where the documentarian and his work is at least as important as the alleged subject. Exit Through the Gift Shop comes to mind, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, while not quite as fascinating as that one, has some similarities.
There are a few twists in the doc that it’s probably better not to reveal. One, however, must be mentioned. As the filming got underway, several other documentary makers began to surface. One, allegedly, was the production company behind hits such as Man on a Wire. Then another, and yet another, documentary maker appeared, turning Berman’s own doc into a kind of hall of mirrors.
At this point, Berman, as well as the viewers have no idea what’s really going on. Is Johnathan playing him (and us) or is he himself being used by multiple filmmakers cashing in on his impending death. Speaking of which, is he even sick at all?
One backstory is that Szeles is a heavy drug user, which possibly explains his heart condition. In fact, if he really uses meth every day, it truly is a miracle that he’s still alive. At one point, Berman offers to take meth with Szeles as an act of “Gonzo journalism.” He goes as far as to consult with a lawyer on the possible legal ramifications. This episode is an example of how the doc drags in spots. In 2019, it isn’t really shocking or necessary for authenticity to watch people take drugs. Yet this is treated as a major ethical and aesthetic issue.
There are other places where the action slows or feels repetitive. While it’s interesting to contemplate who’s telling the truth and what’s really going on, most doc viewers have already seen this kind of thing before. Just as Berman doesn’t know how far he can trust Szeles, so the viewer is in the same position in regards to him. Do we even know, for example, that there really are multiple documentary makers? The main focus is on the notorious second group. Berman doesn’t let us see or hear anything they do, either for his own purposes or because they don’t want to be filmed.
There’s one scene, in a Vancouver theater, where the second doc is allegedly playing, but we don’t get to see any of it, only a sparse crowd that includes an actor Berman pays to crash and ask a question. If we want to get in the spirit of suspicion and paranoia, there’s little evidence that this doc actually exists. Of course, I haven’t taken the trouble to research it and perhaps others have verified it. The point is that the whole film puts one in this state of mind where everything can be doubted.
Whatever other docs may or may not have been made, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary has obviously broken through. It was showcased at Sundance, has been shown in art theaters and is now on Hulu. I’d recommend this film to anyone who’s fascinated in The Amazing Johnathan and/or who can’t get enough of murky doc/mocs where it’s never quite clear what is and isn’t real. It’s not my favorite example of this genre but it did hold my interest.