The Amazing Johnathan Documentary (4 stars)

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

This documentary about the ailing magician is as tricksy and unconventional as its subject

The title of Benjamin Berman's documentary about the magician known by the stage name The Amazing Johnathan is deliberately tricky. Is the documentary amazing, or the subject? And how can something claim to be 'the' definitive story when there's more than one of them to choose from? Whatever audiences conclude, Berman's film is a hall of mirrors, appealing to fans of magic and non-fiction alike.

The director sets out his stall early: he's an aspiring filmmaker enlisted by ailing magician John Szeles to document his comeback, a return to public life which Szeles's doctors seemingly don't advise. Szeles is prickly and difficult, but makes for an interesting-enough subject, until it transpires that there's a second documentary crew authorised to make a film about him. Rivalry develops, but several further twists lie ahead, testing the relationship between Berman and Szeles to the limit.

Cinema is a difficult medium for magic, but this film offers an original idea of how to exploit the documentary format, and Berman's mixture of enthusiasm and desperation make him a perfect mark. As in Orson Welles's classic F for Fake, there's a complex series of games going on, with the audience invited to question how real or staged events are. It stretches credulity that Berman is blindsided by such a conventional issue as non-exclusivity, although the nature of the obstacles he tries to overcome is constantly amusing.

Whether smoking crack to get into the head of his drug-addled muse, or setting up fake audience members to disrupt a rival screening, the director is as much of a wayward character as his subject; he's a deceptively accessible centre to this shaggy dog story. Timely, infuriating and empathetic, Berman's personable account of a film gone wrong makes for an engrossing diversion into practical magic.

Limited release from Tue 19 Nov.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 1h 31min
  • Directed by: Benjamin Berman
  • Cast: The Amazing Johnathan, Eric André, Benjamin Berman
  • UK release: 19 November 2019

Film about ailing magician John Szeles, who enlists director Berman to document his comeback; gradually the director becomes as much a subject of his own film. A hall of mirrors, personable and engrossing, and an original take on the documentary format.