‘The Amazing Johnathan Documentary’
Documentary directed by Benjamin Berman
Streaming on Hulu and playing at City Cinemas Village East
“The Amazing Johnathan Documentary” purports to tell the story of the famed stand-up comedian/magician, a popular performer since the 1980s known for his unique blend of the two art forms.
Clad in his signature headband with hair flopping above, Johnathan, born John Edward Szeles in 1958, would do outrageous illusions, like cutting into his own arm, piercing his tongue and removing his own eyeball. In the heyday of stand-up during the 1980s, he was a regular on talk shows and comedy specials. He also had a long run in Las Vegas. His comedy was smart and his stage presence was frenetic. It was impossible to turn away.
But his physical condition would get in the way. In recent years, he revealed that he had a heart condition called cardiomyopathy and in 2014, said that he had a year to live.
This film picks up three years after, with Johnathan still alive and working on getting back on the road performing. Talking heads like “Weird” Al Yankovic, Penn Jillette, Judy Gold and Eric Andre discuss their experiences and admiration for Johnathan.
Documentarian Benjamin Berman (“Comedy Bang! Bang!”) begins to follow Johnathan, from his home life with his wife Anastasia Synn, his drug usage — Meth is a favorite — and his experience dealing with his ailment. Until the second documentary crew shows up.
The film quickly diverges from Johnathan’s story to Berman’s. What’s up with this second crew? What will this do for his film? Berman even spends time interviewing his parents. And it raises questions like, is Johnathan even sick? Is this all some grand illusion Johnathan conceived? Ultimately it becomes a different film, and at that, a less interesting one.
Those looking for more backstory on Johnathan or insight into his unique brilliance will be left wanting. Even clips from his performances are sparse and anecdotal stories are sorely missing. There is some resolution, but after 90 minutes, it’s an ending to a story that wasn’t that interesting to begin with. Maybe some umpteenth film crew can come along and put the camera on this fascinating figure and keep it there.