This probably plays best if – like me – you only have a vague awareness of who ‘the Amazing Johnathan’ (Johnathan Szeles) is going in. If you’re a fan of the guy – known for his grossout stunts, prop use, headband and deconstructed tricks (some very clever) – then you might want to seek out Always Amazing, a rival documentary which gets some quite funny/sinister exposure here. The hook is that Johnathan was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition in 2014 but beat the odds and is – at the time of writing – still alive. After a few years of taking it easy (which still apparently involve heavy drug use), he announced that he was going back on the road in a kind of open-ended farewell tour. His wife brings up the case of British comedian Tommy Cooper, who died onstage while the audience laughed at what they thought was part of the act (I’d never seen footage of this before and it’s quite upsetting – so trigger warning) … but director Ben Berman, along with quite a few of the talking heads interviewees, starts to wonder whether the whole dying bit isn’t an Andy Kaufman-style put-on. Of course, Andy Kaufman went so far as to die.
This would be enough for most documentaries, but about a reel into this one things take a different tack as Berman learns that Johnathan has cut a deal with other filmmakers (whose faces and voices are blurred and who go unnamed) to make pretty much the same documentary – and, moreover, he favours them since they’ve won two Oscars and he takes pride in hesitantly mentioning the titles of the hits they’ve made (Searching for Sugar Man and Man on Wire) to awed people. Berman is gobsmacked, befuddled, seething and phlegmatic in turns about this development, and can’t even play the I-was-here-first card since it turns out he was actually the third filmmaker to work on a similar project … an amiable chainsaw-juggler has been tinkering with a like project for years, and has no hang-ups about competition in a way that makes Berman seem petty, while a mystery woman worked for two months on another before quitting though she hands over her materials to the current filmmaker.
There are many other twists and wrinkles – including the involvement of Berman’s father and stepmom and some business about his background that informs his current project, a stealth trip to the underattended premiere of Always Amazing in Canada, an appearance from the bemused Simon Chinn (the actual producer of Searching for Sugar Man and Man on Wire), the up-and-down relationship of filmmaker and subject that includes a weird aside about smoking meth on camera, and a classic crisis/resolution in the home stretch that’s almost too neat … as if, just maybe, another magic trick is being performed. While this isn’t one of those docs where the filmmaker gets in the way of the subject, the volte face as Berman is forced to look at himself more than his subject raises a lot of issues worth discussing – and there are some hilarious moments, like his glum reaction to a comedy skit about there being too many documentaries.
It see-saws as to whether Johnathan is a sweet, brave, admirable guy with a sly wit that takes a beat or two to appreciate – ‘this is a picture of a pitcher holding a picture of a pitcher’ – or a self-involved, malicious bastard. There’s a truly affecting thread as Berman agonises about an issue Johnathan skewers him for – that his film would have a stronger ending if its subject got on with dying.
NB: Always Amazing is on Youtube, complete with a statement from director Steve Byrne that – as you might expect – has some issues with the depiction of the project in The Amazing Johnathan Documentary.