The Amazing Jonathan Documentary Is Full of Lies
The following contains spoilers for the Hulu documentary “The Amazing Johnathan Documentary”
The Amazing Johnathan is an amazing performer. His act is one part magic, one part comedy, one part “mad man shouting at strangers.” He has had several television appearances since he began performing in 1983.
In 2007 The Amazing Johnathan was diagnosed with a heart problem, later characterized as cardiomyopathy. Though there are several types of cardiomyopathy, as it is explained in one of the documentaries about The Amazing Johnathan, his heart muscle is not fully functioning, contracting, and pumping blood the way it should. He is able to continue performing for several years until the disease becomes too much and he retires in 2014. Johnathan has been told he only had one year to live.
Fast forward to 2017; Jonathan isn’t dead yet. He wants to stage a comeback tour, and he has agreed to let a documentary crew film the process of staging his comeback. This is the beginning of a wild ride, so strap in.
The First Film (The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, Hulu 2019)
The film on Hulu is titled “The Amazing Johnathan Documentary.” The film begins with some background on who Johnathan is and what he is going through with his heart problems. Then we get the first curveball of many. The Amazing Johnathan is a drug addict. Self professed and unapologetic, he is up front about his addiction. He did cocaine in the 80’s and was able to eventually kick the habit. Cocaine is a hard drug to stop, but Johnathan was able to do it with the help of meth, which replaced his cocaine habit.
That’s right, The Amazing Johnathan is addicted to meth. His candor on the subject is remarkable, explaining that all of his success has come by the way drugs. He the writing credits his amazing magical and comedic bits to having been strung out on booger sugar and later blue sky. His wife isn’t thrilled that he actively does meth, but as he points out- her life isn’t that bad, having everything paid for and living in a mansion.
Johnathan takes breaks at several points throughout filming to sneak away and smoke meth. He is fully transparent on what he is doing, noting only that he does not want to be filmed doing it. He wants it censored with a black box, or the images removed completely.
So a magician with a failing heart is doing meth and is ready for a comeback, surely that’s the craziest thing here, right? So very wrong, friend. We’re just getting started.
The Second Film Crew
Part way through filming, nearing the date of Johnathan’s comeback shows, he informs the first film’s director, Ben Berman, that he will be having an “Academy Award winning” second crew following him around for their own documentary. That’s odd. Why would Johnathan want a second crew filming him? As fellow magician Max Maven theorizes in the film, with Johnathan’s time limited, he must be thinking “the more the better.”
A fair point, and it would do great things for Johnathan to get the most publicity for a comeback, and for himself in general if he were to have two documentaries about him. However, Johnathan does not treat the crews the same. He is obviously playing favorites with the new “Academy” crew. He continually recites the films that they have been involved with: “Man On Wire” and “Searching for Sugar Man.” Immediately Johnathan is not as warm and patient with the Berman crew. To be frank, he’s being a dick, as is the “Academy” crew.
The other film director was very short with Berman, telling him he doesn’t want to be included in his film in any way. There are several times that the two crews are posturing for limited space at a venue or in the green room, and they are given short responses by Johnathan or the other crew.
The begins a new arc in the film where Berman struggles to find understanding in this injustice. He was there first, filming this documentary, and now these big wig hollywood types swoop in and claim his turf. Yet, we’re still just getting started. Enter: The third crew.
The Third Film Crew
The term “crew” is misleading. It’s really just one guy, Rad Chad. Rad Chad is a stage name that the guy uses when he’s juggling chainsaws. I wish I could make up stuff this good. Oh and Chad is actually “the first crew” not “the third crew.” He started filming Johnathan before Berman did, by a couple of years at the least.
Around this same time Berman finds out that Johnathan signed a contract that says Berman must wait two years after the “Academy” releases their film to release his. At this point, Johnathan, heart disease and addiction aside, is really not that likable. He’s screwing several documentarians out of the ability to make original movies and he doesn’t seem to upset about it. At least there isn’t a fourth crew.
The Fourth Film Crew
At this point I gave The Amazing Johnathan the acclaim of “comedic genius” because the severity of this jerk around was supremely hilarious. Honestly though, there is not much to this reveal. We find out that another filmmaker, Nikki, started production on a film even before Chad, but production was stopped early in the process.
Berman reaches out to Nikki, and she agrees to meet up with him and give him her raw footage. Berman begins to compare footage and confer with Chad, basically finding they’ve all been making the same documentary. Now Berman has to find a way to separate his film. How does he do this?
Berman decides he’s going to smoke meth with Johnathan on camera. Yes, seriously. Earlier in an interview, Johnathan remarked the only way he’d be shown using on camera is if Berman did it with him. And now, in a desperate position he figures this is something that will truly make his documentary unique. To his credit, it’s highly doubtful any of the other films have their directors smoking meth with Johnathan.
Berman meets up with Johnathan at his house, tells him he’s willing to light up with him if it means he can use the footage. So they grab a pipe, start boiling the meth, and just as the pipe is about to touch Berman’s mouth… the film stops to play a message from Berman’s lawyer highly advising him against smoking meth on camera. No shit.
So now what?
Not an Academy Award Winning Film Crew
Through some digging from one of the producers of the film that the crew actually has no connection to “Searching for Sugar Man” or “Man on Wire.” They even travel to the premier of the other documentary at Just for Laughs in Canada. Through the hiring of an actor and some covert filming, Berman catches the director admitting he had no connection to the two Academy Award Winning films. You’ve got to be kidding me. They were lying? Was Johnathan lying? What is going on?
This immediately throws a lot into question. Is Johnathan trying to deceive Berman for some reason? If he is, what else is he lying about? Is he actually dying? A question which he asks directly to Johnathan in a sit down interview, prompting Johnathan to storm out of the room, demanding everyone out of his house.
Surely this is the end, right?
An Academy Award Winning Producer
Berman flies to England and actually sits down with the producer of “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Man on Wire,” Simon Chinn. He gives a summation of the events that have transpired up until this point. He explains that the other film crew made Johnathan believe that Chinn’s company was behind the documentary. Then he gives a pitch: “will you produce my movie?”
Cut to Detroit. Johnathan, confined to a wheelchair, is visiting his mother in an assisted living facility. Berman meets him there and offers a heartfelt apology. Jonathan accepts. Berman then offers a gift: the name of Simon Chinn attached to this documentary as a producer! Now The Amazing Johnathan really does have a documentary produced by an Academy Award winner!
That must be all?! For the love of Christ, please let it be all!
Just as the movie is ending and you think the most twisty turvy rollercoaster of a documentary you’ve ever seen is coming to an end, we get his with this voice message from Simon Chinn: “I actually just spoke to my business partner in L.A. and it turns out that actually he met the other competing crew sometime ago, completely unbeknownst to me, and he actually lent them some of our camera gear. The idea that I was attached to the project as the producer still not true, but for one brief moment… I guess… I was involved in the other film.” Ben replies with a bewildered “huh?” and the film credits roll.
Surely this must be the end of this, right?
Wrong again, baby, this shit never ends.
The Other Side/ The Second Film (ALWAYS AMAZING: The True Story of the Life, Death, and Return of Amazing Johnathan, Currently on Youtube 2017)
So there’s another documentary out there, right? Correct, it’s actually on Youtube for free (the video directly below.) The film is kind of ok. I’ll be honest, I didn’t watch more than fifteen minutes. Why would I? It’s a run of the mill documentary about the same subject as a documentary I literally just watched. The exact thing Berman was afraid of. Hell, the director didn’t even do meth.
Then a comment caught my eye. It was from comedian Steve Byrnes. Steve Byrnes, as it turns out, was the guy that didn’t want Berman filming him. He was the director of the “Academy” crew, and boy did he have a lot to say.
It begins: “My name is Steve Byrne. I'm the director of "Always Amazing". I met The Amazing Johnathan and his road mgr. Joel Ozborn, in 2000. It was the fist time I ever featured for another comic on the road and a friendship developed amongst us. I was privy to Johnathan and this incredible, loving, hilarious dynamic between he and Joel. When Johnathan was given and terminal diagnosis and retired, I was incredibly hurt to hear of it but when he outlived expectations and made an announcement he was returning to stage, I as a fan and friend, wanted to do a doc and cover it. I reached out to him and he said let's do it!”
Associated with Lightbox
Lightbox is the name of Chinn’s production company. To clear up the “Academy Award winning crew statements, Byrne writes: “As AJ was making a return to stage, I was writing material for a documentary for Lightbox called "China Hustle". While there, I ran my vision by them per Johnathan's return to stage and I had a 2 plus hour meeting with Mr. Chinn. Intrigued, he lent me and my crew equipment to film my first interview with Johnathan. Before I could compile a "sizzle reel" for Mr. Chinn and Lightbox, I was told he wouldn't have the band-with to continue and wished us well on our film. In short, I worked with Lightbox for a matter of weeks. A few weeks. Once I was told of this, I immediately communicated this information to Johnathan. I also let him know one of the freelance producers at Lightbox did enjoy our vision and jumped aboard with us to help out.”
But He Muscled in on Berman’s Turf!
“It was also around this time, I was surprised to learn that another documentary was being made about Johnathan. I was incredibly uncomfortable and shocked. When I learned about this, I immediately asked Johnathan if I could communicate with this other film to clear the air, learn of each other's narrative and see if it was feasible to continue on. I got the phone number of the other film maker and had a respectful conversation. We learned that our narratives were completely different, (I was focusing on AJ and Joel's [Johnathan’s former road manager] relationship and he was doing more of a cinema verite piece on Johnathan) and I felt comfortable from that conversation that we could both forge on and make our respective films. Seeing that we were both covering AJ's return to stage, I suggested meeting up in Boston, before the shows to work out respectful working logistics. “
“Once in our hotel and settled, we had a meeting in the lobby. Again, it was respectful and when I learned that he had been doing his film for 2 years prior to us, I let him know we would take a back seat to his film. By that I mean, there were 3 shows for AJ's return and we just wanted to cover the shows and for one show have backstage access to interview AJ and Joel back stage. Thus, the other film maker would have access to AJ 24/7, to and from gigs, pre and post gigs, etc.. We just wanted one backstage interview to see how he felt post show and to cover the shows themselves. We were limiting our access.”
On Telling Berman Not To Film Him
“After taking a red eye flight from LA to Boston, I was bleary eyed and gathering our gear on a bus to a car rental center with AJ and the other film crew. The other film maker began to film me on the bus without even saying hello. This was my introduction to him. I asked him to please not film me.”
“At the end of the meeting I was asked if I could be filmed for an interview for the other film. I respectfully declined, citing, I had never made a film before and wanted to invest all my time getting logistically done what needed to be done. I was then asked, "don't you think you owe me? I've been doing this for 2 years before you." A bit bothered, I replied "no. please don't film me". To which he shook my hand and I again asked him not to film me and he agreed. Both my producers witnessed this moment. I thought that would be the end of that.”
The list of explanations goes on and on, and I do not mean that in a patronizing way. Steve Byrne is a well respected, hard working comedian that appears to have been portrayed in very skewed way by Berman’s documentary on Hulu. Byrne’s comment explains why the two crews had trouble finding filming locations inside the Foxwoods Casino (Berman’s crew never called ahead.) It explains that he never deceived Johnathan about his association with Lightbox. It explains a lot, however one key thing stands out far and beyond all other here.
Berman is the Liar?
In an accusation with very heavy implications, Byrne states that Berman tried to pay Johnathan to literally toss out Berman, Fresh Prince of Bel Air style I’m assuming, out of Johnathan’s house so Berman could have an ending to his movie. Per Byrne: “I'll also let you know, since I have first hand knowledge of how deceitful he was willing to go: when he was trying to find an ending to his film, he placed $2,000 in front of AJ and asked if he could film AJ throwing him out of his house, providing an ending to his film. To this, AJ was justifiably upset and left the interview. That reaction from AJ is what's in the film. That is not just deceitful, it's classless. To provoke any person, to get a reaction for a film is beyond anything I can even morally comprehend.”
Wow. What a wild turn of events. At every turn is another turn of events. Berman was the hero, now he’s the bad guy. This faceless Hollywood sleazeball is actually a well respected, working comedian, writer, and producer. The Amazing Johnathan does meth. The director of one (of four that we know of) of his documentaries did meth with him.
This entire experience has honestly been one of the most confusing, but also one of the most exhilarating times I have ever had watching a documentary. It also shows that even in documentaries, film supposedly based on the truth, you’re still getting a narrative. In a medium that is supposed to be centered around facts, you’re never truly sure what the facts are.