The Amazing Johnathan Documentary





Seeing is not always believing as this unusual documentary shows us.

Amazing Jonathan Documentary 


The clear-cut title of this film by Ben Berman proves to be misleading. Berman may have set out to make a documentary about the American stage magician and illusionist who billed himself as The Amazing Johnathan but, as it has turned out, what emerges on screen is just as much about Berman and his frustrations in making the movie. That might not have been a bad thing but for the fact that Berman adopts a tiresomely jokey style of presentation and shapes his material in a wholly self-indulgent manner.


The film’s opening scene could belong to a more conventional piece as we learn that Berman set out to film Johnathan in 2014 when, despite having had a heart diagnosis three years earlier that had given him only a year to live, the showman had decided against doctor’s orders to undertake a farewell tour celebrating his thirty years on the boards. The film mainly moves forward from there, although we do get comments from Johnathan’s wife and his aged mother relating to his earlier life. There’s also early on a montage of tributes from others which unfortunately pass too quickly to mean much to those like myself without previous knowledge of Johnathan’s career.


Soon, however, we hear of a second film crew also making a documentary about Johnathan. From this point on Berman treats subsequent developments better not disclosed here and does so in a manner that invites us to question what is fake and how much is phoney. It is stressed that Johnathan is a known prankster, but Berman feels like one too. When a rival film is actually screened, the name of its director is bleeped out and on occasion interview footage is interrupted with repeated cuts to a black screen. Legal issues are mentioned not regarding Johnathan’s duties to Berman as his authorised film biographer but over the issue of whether or not the two men should be shown in the finished film taking drugs together (the comic aspect of this is played up by blacking out part of the image).


As the film develops towards its rather surprising close, it asks more and more how genuine Johnathan has been, but the way in which Berman narrates events only serves to leave us exasperated because we could readily believe that virtually nothing in the piece is in fact authentic. Meanwhile, that self-centred streak leads to footage of Berman’s dad and stepmother and to the reading out of a letter he received from his dying mother. With a different tone Berman’s plight and the eventual revelation of the truth about Johnathan might have led us through intriguingly bizarre situations to a feeling of sympathy. Instead, the approach adopted may entertain some but is likely to infuriate others, indeed to lead them to the conclusion that the film is a waste of time.                  




Featuring   John Szeles, Ben Berman, Doreen Szeles, Doug Szeles, Simon Chinn, Eric André, Judy Gold, Penn Jillette, Max Maven, Chadd Smith, Scott 'Carrot Top' Thompson, 'Weird Al' Yankovic.


Dir Ben Berman, Pro Ben Berman, Russell Wayne Groves and Jacob Perlin, Ph Dan Alderstein and Ben Berman, Ed Scott Evans and Ben Berman, Music Zack Wright. 


The Film Arcade/Cold Iron Pictures/Anonymus Content/Horse Horse Horse Productions-Dogwoof.
91 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 22 November 2019. Cert. 15.