“You just want me to die so you get your ending.” That’s the terminally ill subject of this always compelling, occasionally irritating documentary talking. He is John Szeles, aka The Amazing Johnathan, a comedian and gonzo magician who in his heyday raked in $3m a year poking a metal spike through his tongue and pretending to guzzle masses of cocaine from a glass jar on stage. Szeles is now dying, supposedly.
Enter filmmaker Ben Berman to make a documentary of The Amazing Johnathan’s comeback tour. Szeles was diagnosed with a fatal heart condition in 2014. In footage from a gig at the time he says to the audience: “I’ve been told I have a year to live.” Laughter ripples through the theatre, but Szeles’ face is pale with shock – there is no punchline. It’s three years later, in 2017, when Berman comes knocking. Szeles is still very much alive. Bored and missing the limelight, he’s doing a series of finale gigs. What’s the worst that could happen, he reasons, a heart attack on stage? Not a bad way to go – “it would be good for the legacy”.
Szeles is a tricky customer, a meth addict with a mean streak. He’s constantly giving director Berman the run-around. Then, six months into filming, he telephones to say that he’s allowing another documentary crew to film the tour. And not just any other film crew – these guys are the double Oscar-winning team behind Man on Wire and Searching For Sugar Man.
At this point Berman becomes a bigger character in The Amazing Johnathan Documentary. His film falling apart around him, he agonises about quitting. Szeles, meanwhile, is enjoying the attention, smirkingly telling a radio interviewer, “We have Ben and we have the other documentary crew, the really important crew.”
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Berman begins to question what’s real, what’s illusion. Johnathan is untrustworthy and mugging him off. But could he be lying about dying? At this point Berman begins to interrogate himself. Why does he want to make a documentary about a dying man anyway? He searches his own motives, looking at back at home videos from his childhood and interviewing his own family and friends; a tragedy from his past surfaces. You might find it fascinating; for me it was a bit of a cop out.
Louis Theroux is a fan of The Amazing Johnathan Documentary and will be interviewing Berman at screenings across the UK. I couldn’t help thinking that Theroux, with his itchy curiosity about people and human psychology, would have stood his ground, poked his way behind Szeles’ smokescreen. Instead, when the going gets tough, Berman goes meta, turning his film into a commentary on the ethics of documentary-making. As a device for a film it’s interesting to a point – but it didn’t fully work its magic on me.
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is in cinemas now