"Everything is as it should be."

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The Amazing Jonathan Documentary: A Review


My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. This film is mildly amusing but lack any and all insight into it’s subject.

The Amazing Jonathan Documentary, directed by Ben Berman, chronicles the difficulties of making a documentary about the moderately famous magician/prop comic, Amazing Jonathan, as he mounts a comeback while suffering from a terminal medical condition. The film is currently streaming on Hulu.

Jonathan Szeles, otherwise known as The Amazing Jonathan, is a third rate, c-level comedian who hit it big and became a Vegas mainstay with his relentless and hackneyed magic-comedy. From 2001 to 2014 he was a year-round headliner in the City of Sin and made a nice fortune for himself doing so. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a heart condition and given one year to live…so he retired from performing. Four years later he was still alive and so decided to head back out and do some more shows, and director Ben Berman decided to document it all.

The Amazing Jonathan Documentary is a film about desperation, the desperation of Jonathan to find meaning and purpose in the last years of his life, and the desperation of Ben Berman not only to find a story to tell when the truth is elusive, but to make a name for himself.

The Amazing Jonathan is an amusing persona, and getting a glimpse into this character’s supposed reality is often-times chuckle-inducing. Amazing Jonathan is, to put it mildly, detached from objective reality, and our brief jaunts through his subjective reality are certainly revealing of the oddity of his peculiar head space.

The problem though is that documentarian Ben Berman only gives us ever-so-brief glimpses into the persona of The Amazing Jonathan, but never breaks through the armor of that veneer and gives us the Jonathan Szeles living deep with in it. In this way the film is little more than a reality tv show that gives viewers canned and manipulated “performances’ and considers them to be “truth”.

In addition, Berman must deal with a series of absurdities regarding the actual film making process, and thus must scramble to adapt to new circumstances and try and cobble together a coherent narrative. Berman fails to overcome these obstacles for a variety of reasons, the most glaring is that instead of keeping the film focused on Jonathan, he makes the film about himself.

Berman switches mid-way through the film to using ham-fisted attempts at personal poignancy, psychological profundity and displays of artistic despair, in order to fill in the gaps of the story due to his inadequacies as a documentarian. These Berman performative sequences all ring hollow, manufactured and exploitative and radiate with an odious shamelessness. In short, Berman comes across as a very bad actor, and yet he tries to make himself the star of his movie because he thinks he is so interesting despite his obvious lack of charisma and likability.

Berman’s attempt at participatory documentary film making feels painfully self-serving and narcissisticly masturbatorial. In order to pull off this style of documentary film making, the director must be a unique yet pleasant character, think Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, not a nebbish desperate for attention, which is how Ben Berman, who is neither unique nor pleasant and is no Michael Moore or Morgan Suprlock, comes across. Berman goes to such great lengths to make a spectacle of himself in this film that when it isn’t painfully embarrassing it is plain annoying. The film devolves to become such a self-serving enterprise that Berman basically turns it into a blatant job interview.

The behind the scenes, movie making insider stuff, will no doubt resonate with anyone who has ever made a movie, particularly a documentary. Jonathan is an erratic nightmare of a subject, and Berman being stuck in his house of horrors does deliver some comedy, but that doesn’t make it even remotely insightful or worthwhile. Watching Jonathan torture Berman is satisfying on a sadistic level for the viewer and a masochistic level for Berman, but we came here to try and understand Jonathan, and none of that stuff gives us any deeper understanding of who he really is or what drives him.

What is so frustrating about The Amazing Jonathan Documentary is that Berman’s narcissistic focus distracts from Jonathan, and leaves his story, in essence, untold. I was left with a nagging feeling after watching this movie that, as difficult a nut as Jonathan is to crack, a more talented, more skilled, more dedicated and less vain film maker would have been able to break through and expose the actual truth about Jonathan. In essence this film is a documentation of Berman’s utter failure to do his job, which is to peel back the layers of The Amazing Jonathan and reveal the complexity and truth at the core of this strange and twisted man. Instead Berman gives us his reactions and responses to dealing with a difficult and temperamental performer…oooh…how groundbreaking….we’d get better insights watching The Bachelorette.

In conclusion, The Amazing Jonathan Documentary is an occasionally intriguing, but ultimately underwhelming documentary experience. Sadly, while the film is amusing in parts and absurd in others, it all feels a bit too self-serving and contrived to be of any genuine value. That said, if you work in the entertainment industry or on documentary films, you will probably appreciate the movie a bit more than the average Joe only because you will have had, at least once, similarly bizarre experiences with obliviously entitled talent.


Leaving Neverland: A Review


My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. See it to see and hear the truth regarding one of America’s most famous icons.

Leaving Neverland, produced and directed by Dan Reed, is a documentary that tells the story of Michael Jackson’s child sexual abuse of James Safechuk and Wade Robson from the late 80’s to the mid-90’s. The film is four hours long and is broken down into two, two-hour segments, which originally aired on HBO on March 3rd and 4th and are currently still available on that channel.

Leaving Neverland is one of those documentaries that takes a nebulous perception and turns it into an unavoidable reality. Michael Jackson, who settled a child sexual abuse lawsuit for a rumored $25 million in 1993 and was acquitted of child sex abuse involving another boy in a separate case in 2005, has long been assumed to be a pedophile…Leaving Neverland removes all doubt from that assumption.

The film is basically a collection of very long interviews with Safechuk and Robson where they describe in extremely explicit detail their sexual interactions with Jackson when they were minors, in Robson’s case as young as 7 years old. While the explicitness of their stories is uncomfortable to hear, it is very effective in shattering any illusions that might cloud the cold-hard reality of Jackson’s perverse sexual predilections. The explicitness of the language used is very beneficial, as terms like “molested” or “fondled” sound less damning and less evil than hearing the precise descriptions of what Jackson was doing to these little boys.

Director Reed wisely cuts back and forth between the explicit interviews of the grown men and footage of when they were young boys at the age when they were abused. This approach is highly effective in bringing home the point of Jackson’s disturbing depravity and the scope and scale of his evil.

Safechuk and Robson come across as forthright and believable in the interviews. If they are lying about the nature of their relationship with Jackson then they are two of the greatest actors to have ever walked the earth. Robson is much more camera friendly and articulate than Safechuk, but Safechuk’s pure being, his posture, his energy, the look in his eye, is devastating testimony in and of itself, and is a searing indictment of Michael Jackson.

The film does not have any interviews from members of the Jackson family or any counter arguments to Safechuk and Robson, and some may see that as unfair, I do not agree. For thirty years we have heard the Jackson story while the children he abused have been silenced due to his wealth and power. We’ve heard enough from Jackson and company, and Leaving Neverland gives the side of the story we haven’t heard yet and that is what makes it so valuable.

What is so striking about the documentary is the news footage from the height of Jackson’s fame in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Jackson’s pedophilia was hiding in plain sight for all of us to see…in fact he was even flaunting it. The footage of Jackson gallivanting around the globe hand in hand with little boys is disgusting as he acts like a rock star parading around in public with a super model as arm candy and trophy girlfriend. And just like some rock star would want the status symbol of being seen in public with the latest and hottest Hollywood ingenue, Michael Jackson did the same thing with little boys, going public with his “friendship” with first Emmanuel Lewis (of Webster fame) and then later with Macaulay Culkin.

Jackson is just a despicable and deplorable human being, but his staff, family and enablers are equally repugnant for aiding and abetting his blatantly obvious sexual predation. As the documentary shows, Jackson’s staff members were actively recruiting boys to be Jackson’s companions and were complicit in keeping parents away while the abuse was happening.

Leaving Neverland is not just an indictment of Jackson, but of us all. His fans, the media and the public in general refused to see or believe what was right in front of our eyes because it was easier to ignore it, laugh about it or pretend it wasn’t happening. How Jackson did not get his head caved in by either a raging father of an abused child or by a security staffer with a conscience, is beyond me.

The documentary is very effective in revealing how Jackson didn’t just seduce little boys but also their entire families. The interviews with Safechuk’s and Robson’s mothers are very enlightening and at times infuriating. These women, whose job was to protect their kids, fell for Jackson’s schtick hook, line and sinker and their boys paid the price for it. The mother’s, especially Ms. Robson, inability to take responsibility for their failure is mind-boggling, and the fact that Ms. Robson STILL doesn’t want to hear what happened to her son is astonishing. But this is what the allure of fame does to people, it distorts and compromises their soul, and they end up selling their son’s youth and innocence for a shot at the brass ring.

After the airing of the second part of the documentary, HBO aired a special interview with Oprah Winfrey and James Safechuk and Wade Robson. Considering Oprah herself has talked publicly about being sexually abused as a girl and the intracicies of that, you would think she’d be a good choice to host program…but you would be wrong.

Oprah is a terrible interviewer as she always makes everything about her and her opinion…but she is an even worse human being because she is so devoid of self-awareness yet is delusional enough to think that she is entirely self-aware. During the post-doc interview Oprah has the temerity to tell Safechuk that he hasn’t evolved as much as Robson, which if Oprah were half as “evolved” as she thinks she is she would understand is a really vicious thing to say to a survivor, especially one in such a vulnerable state as Safechuk.

What was stunning to me is that Oprah spent the hour pontificating on how wise she is about abuse and how it is really seduction, but she fails to ever mention that she interviewed Michael Jackson in 1993…and it was a patty cake interview if there ever was one. During that interview Oprah never held Jackson to account or held his feet to the fire for his “bizarre” and curious behavior with boys. Oprah…like the rest of America and like Safechuk and Robson and countless other boys and their families…was seduced by Michael Jackson and the allure of his fame and power, which is saying quite a lot considering Oprah’s fame and power…and it would have been interesting for Oprah to talk about HER experience of that seduction and how she was either wittingly or unwittingly blind to Jackson’s depravity…instead of doing what she did and giving her opinion on other people’s experience of that.

The enormity of Michael Jackson’s fame and celebrity, especially back in the 80’s and early 90’s is difficult to fathom in this day and age of such a fractured and fragmented popular culture. Michael Jackson wasn’t just a superstar, he was a supernova. Jackson was the most famous and identifiable person on the planet back then and more people knew his name than any other person’s in the whole world.

When you look at Jackson’s discography and album sales it is unbelievable. Jackson was considered a performing prodigy and was a superstar with his family band The Jackson Five at the age of 11. After an awkward adolescent transition, Jackson returned to glory as a 21 year old with his 1979 hit album Off the Wall, which is a terrific album that sold 20 million copies.

The follow up to Off the Wall was Thriller, which sold an estimated 66 million copies and is the greatest selling album of all-time. Thriller undeniably made Jackson the biggest pop star in the world. No one has ever or will ever surpass Thriller’s sales numbers.

After Thriller Jackson could have sold 20 million copies of any piece of crap he threw out there, and that is kind of what he did with the awful Bad (1987) and the even more abysmal Dangerous (1991), which sold 35 and 32 million copies respectively.

The success of Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad and Dangerous gave Jackson enormous amounts of wealth and power and with that money and power Jackson could do whatever the hell he wanted…and sadly…what he wanted to do most of all was to have sex with young boys.

After watching Leaving Neverland and the Oprah special I sat contemplating what I had just seen and I had two thoughts. The first thought was how striking it is to me that in the 1980’s, a decade of America’s alleged rebirth and renewal under Ronald Reagan, the biggest and most beloved music star was Michael Jackson and the biggest and most beloved television star was Bill Cosby. These two men were very similar in a lot of ways in that they were two Black men whose success crossed color lines, who cultivated personas that exuded a gentle kindness and moral purity, and who were sexual predators who preyed upon the defenseless, in Jackson’s case young children and in Cosby’s case drugged and unconscious women. I have no idea what that observation means in a broader sense, maybe something about masks and facades and how to succeed in America, I don’t know, I just thought it was very curious that these two men were so successful in their careers at that time period but also so successful at getting away with their sex crimes for so long.

The second thought I had was about Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s personal physician, who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson’s 2009 death from an overdose of propofol. Murray served two years in prison and was pilloried by the media for being responsible for “killing” Michael Jackson. After watching Leaving Neverland, I think Conrad Murray deserves a fucking medal.

In conclusion, Leaving Neverland is a difficult documentary to watch, but I highly recommend you do watch it because we must never look away from the truth, no matter how ugly it is or how uncomfortable it makes us.