On the face of it, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is a fairly simple proposition. It’s the story of the eponymous American comedy magician — a telly stalwart in the 1980s and 90s — who announced in 2014 that he had only a year to live as a result of a heart condition. Years later, he was still alive, prompting first-time feature documentary filmmaker Ben Berman to explore his life and career.
And that’s what the film is, for roughly 20 minutes. Then it spirals into a weird world in which it’s never quite clear who is telling the truth and whether anyone is in possession of all the facts.
“I actually set out thinking that it was probably going to be a short film,” Berman tells Yahoo Movies UK. “It was more feasible to get enough footage for 20 minutes and cut something interesting together.”
Then, says the filmmaker, “a bunch of crazy things happened” and the movie took on an entirely different life, morphing into a dissection of the modern documentary landscape itself.
Berman first heard about The Amazing Johnathan’s illness as part of a conversation with which he wasn’t even involved.
He was working on a Comedy Central pilot show for young magician Justin Willman when the topic of Johnathan came up in the writers’ room. Berman learned that the boundary-pushing TV star — real name John Edward Szeles — he had watched as a teenager was now seriously ill and seeking solace in drugs.
“A weird magician who's confronting his mortality, with humour and sadness?” says Berman. “Boom, sign me up. That's a Ben Berman project.”
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The director almost immediately got more than he bargained for, however. After a brief email exchange, Berman turned on the cameras and went to meet Johnathan. Within 40 minutes, his new subject was making candid revelations about his habit of taking speed “like a vitamin” and offering to take drugs on camera.
“I was, of course, shocked that he was that transparent about it,” Berman says. “I was also thinking ‘oh my god, I'm a genius. I must be such a great filmmaker that I'm getting this intimacy with this guy so quickly’.”
It’s an early example, though, of Johnathan’s changeable attitude to just about everything. Via the medium of a later phone call, we learn that Johnathan no longer wants his drug use to be shown on camera. He oscillates between guarded and candid as the story goes on.
The weirdness soon intensifies when Johnathan announces he’s going back on tour, romanticising the idea of dying on stage like Tommy Cooper. As the shows start, another documentary crew turns up, introduced by Johnathan as the guys who made Oscar-winning docs Man On Wire and Searching For Sugar Man, though this quickly looks like a fishy claim.
Suddenly, the film turns in on itself and becomes an examination of the crowded documentary market, which asks questions about the potential exploitation of vulnerable subjects and the inherent competition of being the first to latch on to a juicy story.
Berman says: “If that other crew was going to be allowed into the narrative, then [the film becomes] about that. So it’s weird.
“All of this ‘doc about a doc’ is there to help reflect Johnathan as a character. We wouldn't be there exploring that if it wasn't for him bringing in that other crew, so everything that happens in the movie, even when he's not present in that scene, it actually is reflective of him as a character
“The process as to how to make a documentary reflects Johnathan's crazy, unique life.”
Eventually, everything is drawn into question. There are whispered conversations on and off camera, calls to lawyers and clandestine filming seemingly ripped from the current glut of true crime content on screens big and small, as well as podcasts. Even the nature of Johnathan’s illness eventually takes on a shadowy, questionable quality.
“I felt like I had to ask those questions,” says Berman. “I had to look under all the rocks to get the answers for my audience. So, yeah, I did think it was possible [that his illness wasn’t real.]
“The writing was on the wall. When a man who was supposed to be dead four years ago is still alive, and he’s smoking drugs, and he's a magician.
“There's so many reasons to question it that I questioned it.”
Ultimately, Berman says, he realised he was wrong to ask those questions and that Johnathan really is ill, persevering with his life against all medical information.
Berman says he is “proud” of the movie and its unusual structure. As to whether Johnathan himself enjoyed the film, Berman doesn’t seem totally sure.
“The first time we showed the movie, which was before Sundance to Johnathan and his wife, they loved it. I believe they still love it. It's hard. It's hard to totally know.
“Johnathan is a unique person. He’s human. I think he goes back and forth in a way. I think he has a different relationship with the movie per minute. Sometimes I do too.”
Rather fittingly for The Amazing Johnathan, things end on a question mark.
Louis Theroux will host a special Q&A screening of The Amazing Johnathan Documentary on 19 November, to be simulcast nationwide across the UK. It will be released on 22 November.