Sydney Film Festival Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is like a film directed by Puff the Magic Dragon

Most documentaries are good at providing observations about a subject. They are often unobtrusive and just like a fly-on-the-wall. But what do you do when you’ve chosen to chronicle an individual who is an illusionist and expert prankster by day? TV director, Ben Berman grapples with this as well as the notion of the truth in this entertaining and intriguing documentary.

The premise for The Amazing Johnathan Documentary starts off simply enough. John Szeles AKA the magician, The Amazing Johnathan announced his retirement in 2014. He was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and given a year to live. Fast forward a few years and the magician that many of us will remember from Hey, Hey It’s Saturday is still very much alive and decides to stage a comeback tour. This could have been a back-slapping story about how a magician comes out of retirement to entertain the masses and make them laugh one last time. But as the great John Lennon once sang, life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.

Needless to say there are some sharp curveballs and twists thrown into this film. To reveal them here would spoil the comedy and the mysteries that unfold in this plot. But what we will say is that Berman is not given an easy ride. He is often at odds with a series of challenges that are thrown his way. He deals with these by placing himself into the story. At other times he quizzes his talking heads, who include: Weird Al Yankovic, Carrot Top, Eric Andre and Judy Gold, as well as Szeles’s family and friends.

This documentary will appeal to fans of Searching for Sugar Man and Waiting-The Van Duren Story because it is so much more than a retelling of the subject’s history. In the case of The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, the mood is kept very light and playful. This is much like Johnathan’s personality rather than the situation he finds himself in (because he is dying, after all).

There are some reflexive and meta-like moments here. The fourth wall is not just smashed, it is obliterated. At other times this film feels like what you’d get if a magician was the one who had written It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Johnathan is like a crazed scientist who loves adding surprises and fiction into the mix. The result is some madcap fun.

The Amazing Johnathan is a puzzling and funny film about a subject so twisted that at times it feels like a mess of squiggly lines. This is a subversive documentary about a character who is hell-bent on not being placed into a tidy box. In fact, he hates this kind of neatness so much that he wills it to disappear along with any semblance of normal documentary tropes. It’s just like making the audience disappear into a puff of smoke… and mirrors.


The Amazing Johnathan Documentary plays as part of the 66th Annual Sydney Film Festival. For more information and tickets head HERE.