Sundance 2019 Review: THE UNTITLED AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY, A Wonderful Hot Mess
In 2015 I was quite taken by Julien Temple’s documentary, The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, which set out to capture the literal farewell tour of the garage punk icon after he was diagnosed with a terminal illness that threatened to take his life in one year’s time. Temple used the project as a way to speak to topics far bigger than just the end notes of a soul for whom he held an abundance of personal esteem.
Johnson meant something to Temple, and through the process of documenting his refusal to take death lying down, the two minds -- subject and filmmaker -- were not only able to learn profound things about death, but of life!
When The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary first began shooting however long ago, I’m sure that its relentlessly ambitious director, Ben Berman, wished that he could make a documentary as good as The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson; which is not to imply that he’d seen it -- frankly I wonder if anyone’s seen it (See it!).
The two films begin from similar, but in the case of the Amazing Johnathan, less poetically existential starting points. Director Ben Berman, has been taken with The Amazing Johnathan since he was a wide-eyed youngster, bedazzled by the prankster comedian’s amped up take on the magic act.
Now an adult with excellent comedic directorial credits to his name -- Tim & Eric, Comedy Bang! Bang!, Lady Dynamite, to name a few -- Berman is devastated to learn that his childhood hero has been given a death sentence. So full of well-meaning intention, Berman seeks to take on his personally coveted subject.
In and of itself, an entertainer facing his impending doom is not the most exciting, or even original, of premises. The ick factor of using adjectives like ‘unoriginal’ or ‘unexciting’ in reference to a person’s life as they face the abyss, on the other hand, is apparently captivating.
Johnathan may be amazing, but is he amazing enough to be the centre of one, or more, documentaries? Is dying enough to hold an audience on the currently overpopulated world stage of doc content?
These are just a few of the questions Berman’s film accidentally stumbles upon, or falls over, in many cases, as the film comes to take on an almost free-falling vibe while its drowning director grows ever-more mindfucked by the bizarre twists and turns his project encounters. Taking his film with him, Berman’s Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary loses its mind before our eyes.
The Amazing Johnathan is, in himself, an absolutely worthy subject deserving of one or several documentaries, even if courted book publishers for the story of his life disagree. But in the hands of a precariously dangling filmmaker hellbent on telling his tale, no matter how confused his auteurly intent, or perhaps because of it, Johnathan winds up getting the most penetrating doc he could have asked for.
Meanwhile the trials and tribulations of getting Berman’s passion project made come to encompass the trials and tribulations of making the passion project, as process becomes subject in ways that will drop your jaw to the floor.
This film was supposed to be a cookie cutter look at a daring showman as he faces his most daring adventure yet. That film might have been good, albeit a bit icky perhaps, as the Amazing Johnathan himself likely feared for the project’s nature. Instead we’re left not only with a film about the ick and the fury of a great man/subject, but of the great documentary carnival at large.