The Amazing Johnathan: The BRWC Review

The Amazing Johnathan

THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN (Dir. Ben Burman, 2019, 90 mins)

Slicing open his arm, piercing his tongue, and deconstructing magic in his own way, that was Amazing Johnathan, aka Johnathan Szeles, a comedian-magician who hada year-round headlining gig in Las Vegas from 2001 to 2014. Illusionist, disruptor and well-liked by his colleagues, Johnathan is a risk-taker and someone who apparently has nothing to lose in his performances. 

Diagnosed with terminal heart disease and given a year to live, Amazing Johnathanannounced the news during a performance while the audience giggled. Was he being serious or was this yet another prank? Two years later Johnathan decided to come out of his medically-induced hum-drum retirement, after all is it better to stay alive but have nothing to do, or to die doing what you love?

“But what would it be like if he dies on stage while people are laughing?” asked his wife. This is where director Ben Burman takes up the saga. As he tussles with the footage, Ben is asked by an honest friend: “Can you trust anything that a magician does?”.  And there begins the story.

The Amazing Johnathan is as much about the subject as it is about the director and the process, creating an engrossing and at times amusing inquiry into truth and motivation. The ethics of documentary making are not often discussed. How close do you want to get? What happens if your story is not as unique as you had imagined? Faced with other crews working on the same project, Ben goes to incredible lengths to create the most original documentary. The editing by Burman and Scott Evans is brilliant. 

This is an interestingly ambiguous documentary about form, method and honesty, as well as the motives, sometimes subconscious, that propel us into projects. Unclear intentions, selected memories and unrequited endings are what contribute to Burman’s film, which has it all; and Burman does not shy away from sharing his own humiliations.  Eventually it is his Dad who asks the key question: “What is the story here?”. By the end it’s hard to decide who is the star of the film – Amazing Johnathan or the director himself.

Louis Theroux will host a special Q&A screening of the film on Tuesday 19 November, to be simulcast nationwide across the UK.

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An Australian who has spent most of her adult life in Paris, Louise is a sometime photographer, documentary-maker, writer, researcher, day-dreamer and interviewer, who prefers to start the day at the local cinema’s 9am session.


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