the amazing johnathan documentary
REVIEWER: nick tonkin
Filmmaker Benjamin Berman has a difficult time separating truth from fiction as he documents the final tour of a dying magician.
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, directed by Ben Sherman is a peculiar thing. It starts as something like a documentary chronicling the life and career of John Szeles, while following him on his final tour after his return from a retirement necessitated by a terminal diagnosis some years earlier.
However, it soon changes into something abstract and unexpected, by also chronicling the difficulties Ben faces in developing the documentary, his motivations for taking on the project, and how his project suffers after Ben becomes aware of the multiple other documentarians vying to tell Szeles’s story at the same time as Ben himself.
John “The Amazing Johnathan” Szeles has had an interesting and impressive career. The film explores this by featuring interviews with performers such as Eric Andre, Judy Gold and Weird Al Yankovic, using their impressions and recollections of Szeles alongside footage of the man himself at various points at his height of fame in the 1990’s to paint a picture of his influence on modern American comedy.
Alongside this, is present day Szeles’s recollections of this time and how the shadow of those days affects him in this future where his health restrains him from doing his stage work which he seems to love so much.
These parts of the film are the more typical fare one would expect from a documentary on a famous performer. However, this structure starts to unravel for a number of reasons: competing documentarians begin to constrain Ben’s access to Szeles, Ben himself has a falling out with Szeles and can’t resume contact, and Ben questioning his reasons for trying to make the documentary.
On this last point, his family and friends feature as sources of wisdom and provide opportunities for self reflection. This ultimately ties back into Szeles’s story but largely to the extent that it reconciles the two men, which in and of itself becomes the crux of the resolution for the film. At the end of it all we seem to have a film that explores both the director and subject, to quite some extent. This is both a curious, and interesting take on a documentary that pulls itself together by the skin of its teeth.
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is a peculiar thing that explores both the director and the subject of the documentary.