THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY

★★

WHOSE DOCUMENTARY IS IT ANYWAY?

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Jess Fenton
4th June 2019

Gone are the days when documentary filmmakers were never seen and rarely heard, save for the occasional off-camera or subtitled question. Thanks to the likes 9; Louis Theroux and David Farrier in recent years, aspiring documentary filmmakers have learned that they too can become the star - an entertaining yet dangerous notion. I, like most Australians who were alive in the 90s, became enamoured and amused by shock magician/comedian The Amazing Johnathan’s crazy, frenetic, infectious energy thanks to his frequent appearances on ‘Hey Hey It’s Saturday’. As it turns out, the loss of ‘Hey Hey’ from our TV screens and growing older wasn’t the reason for The Amazing Johnathan’s disappearance from our minds; it was a death sentence. In 2014 in front of a live audience, Johnathan announced that he had been given just one year left to live. That’s when the vultures descended. But fast forward four years, and The Amazing Johnathan is still very much alive.

Documentary filmmaker Benjamin Berman approached Johnathan with the idea to document his life as he grapples with his medical condition and embarks on a small comeback tour. Tired of waiting to die, Johnathan decides he’d rather die on stage than at home doing nothing. So dates are booked and preparations are made with Benjamin in tow. We’re treated to an inside look at Johnathan’s extravagance and surprising meth addiction - something his wife isn’t too fond of. And yet, he lives on. After a while it’s revealed that Benjamin isn’t the only documentary crew on board - in fact, over time three more crews are revealed. That’s when the story flips to find out what the hell is going on, and who is and isn’t telling the truth.

I’ve never known a documentary filmmaker try so desperately to become the story. What starts as a sad but fascinating final journey of a much-loved entertainer soon becomes the Benjamin Berman story. When the first of the additional documentary crews enters the frame, the film turns into a disgusting act of passive-aggressiveness as Berman tries to prove that he’s the bigger man and won’t let them intimidate him or push him out. He fails. Then Ben turns the cameras on himself and his family as he explores the idea that perhaps all of this was a therapeutic exercise to confront death after the loss of his mother as a child. Yeah, that idea doesn’t really pan out either. Then more documentaries are announced, and once again Ben plays the “but I was here first” card - only it turns out that that’s not true either. And on and on it goes, trying to make something stick, until finally Ben completely shits the bed in the most offensive and convoluted manners. Ben’s ethics are questioned throughout the entire film, so why should now be any different? And for absolutely no reason whatsoever there’s a bit about Ben doing meth with Johnathan - sure, why not? It was literally the only thing that wasn’t in the film up until then.

It’s Munchhausen by documentary!

For all aspiring documentary filmmakers watch this, make it your guide in what not to do. Everything Berman does - and I mean everything - plays as insincere and an effort to gain pity, sympathy and attention. It’s Munchhausen by documentary!

Here’s the thing - ‘The Amazing Johnathan Documentary’ is fascinating in the same way that a car crash scene is fascinating. You drive past and go “Holy shit!” but you never actually find out what happened. This film is a horrible legacy of a dying man, and a great disappointment for this fan who was hoping to watch one of her favourite childhood acts one last time. But if you’re looking for a film that subverts all expectations, including what you think the damn movie you’re about to see is about, this is for you.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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