Documentary is a cinematic genre that has grown on me over the years. Like a lot of attention-deficit afflicted kids, I was more interested in watching Indiana Jones punch Nazis in the face than learning about the Second World War. The idea of watching a movie to learn something felt like a cruel trick perpetrated by unfortunate souls who dared to educate me.
The genre has experienced a renaissance in the age of streaming services. These services are making exceptional documentaries that were near impossible to find during the era of renting movies. A host of topics are covered for anyone looking for a more cerebral cinematic experience. Now, not every documentary is worth screen time. Quality ranges from “exceptional” to “barely watchable,” but I have found two interesting gems I think are worth exploring.
The Amazing Johnathan is a stand-up comedian who gained a reputation for his manic, magic-based comic routines. He was from the same generation of comics as household names like Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling and Eddie Murphy, though Johnathan never achieved their level of fame or fortune. That’s not to say his career wasn’t lucrative. He made millions through touring and residencies in towns where funny magicians could draw crowds, such as Vegas and Reno.
“The Amazing Johnathan Documentary” on Hulu does an amazing job of capturing the comic’s weird, wonderful and occasionally warped and interesting career. Much of the gravitas stems from the fact The Amazing Johnathan has been diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition and given a year to live. By itself, this would have made for a pretty standard documentary, but something strange happens midway through the film.
Director Benjamin Berman discovers through his two-year journey The Amazing Johnathan has given permission to another filmmaker (with supposedly impressive credentials) to make a documentary about his life and subsequent death. It’s a very surreal moment in a movie full of such moments; it gets weirder and weirder, like a snowball rolling downhill toward a production of “Waiting for Godot.” Is Johnathan really a drug addict? Is he really dying, or is this just a ploy to stage a comeback? How many filmmakers has Johnathan given permission to document his remaining years? It’s an entertaining film about life, laughter and death.
“Evelyn,” on Netflix, features a different kind of journey through life and death. Oscar-winning documentarian Orlando von Einsiedel (“White Helmets”) takes a very personal look at the life of his deceased brother. He decides to go on a cathartic walkabout with members of his family, all of whom have felt lost since their brother and son committed suicide. Evelyn had been an avid hiker, and Orlando leads his family through some of his brother’s favorite jaunts. It gives them ample opportunity to talk about Evelyn and try moving forward from a haunting tragedy.
“Evelyn” is a very personal movie that delves deep into sadness and struggles to resurface. The movie does a good job documenting Evelyn’s life and the family’s loss, which ultimately brings them new appreciation and understanding. It can be a difficult movie at times because of its raw, unfettered emotions. Audiences will likely empathize with a family who tries to remember the good but find themselves smothered by an endless stream of “what ifs.” Was there something more they could have done to help him?
Both “Evelyn” and “The Amazing Johnathan Documentary” are interesting examinations of their title characters. By the end of each film, audiences will feel a connection to these people, and even understand what drove them toward their confounding choices.
These documentaries exemplify what I’ve learned to love about the best the genre has to offer: They are honest and, at times, bleak portrayals of imperfect people. Through the filmmakers’ visions, audiences see little things that were perfect about them.