This past week I attended the National Achievers Congress here in Portland, Oregon, USA. There were three sort of headliners for the show, including Gary Vaynerchuk, Robert Herjavec, but the main attraction (if you will) was personal development guru-of-all-time, Tony Robbins aka #BigTony. You’ve probably heard of him. He’s the larger than life guy who has seemingly had titles on the NYTimes Bestsellers List for most of the past couple of decades, and is universally renowned as one of the greatest motivators and personal growth coaches to have walked the planet (if not across a bed of coals). Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, and Leonardo DiCaprio are just a few celebrities who have traversed the fire (if you will) during one of Tony’s workshops. He champions the powers of positive thinking and what he calls “the science of achievement” and “the art of fulfillment”.
But this post is less about my experiences at National Achievers Congress, which for the record, I have to say that I have conflicting feelings about. Seeing Tony was like seeing a rock star perform, with all of the cheering, loud music, and high fives. He was, if nothing else, a helluva experience. And Vaynerchuk and Herjavec definitely had some valuable lessons. But the other five or so hours were basically long-winded sales pitches for various get-rich-quick schemes like creating your own book in order to market your business, becoming a part of a real estate crowdfunding pyramid, playing the stock market to win, etc. I could have done without most any of that.
No, this post is more about my feelings about last year’s Netflix documentary film sensation, I Am Not Your Guru, a “documentary” about Tony Robbins. Seeing the man live inspired me to write this, even though I am fully aware that it’s probably old news, at this point.
You’re probably pretty familiar with documentary filmmaker, Joe Berlinger. He and his now deceased film partner, Bruce Sinofsky -whom I once had the, um, pleasure of working with for a few days down in southern Oregon – were some of the more venerable and revered doc filmmakers in the 90s and 2000s, responsible for such films as Brother’s Keeper, the Paradise Lost trilogy, and Some Kind of Monster (the Metallica doc). So when I heard that Berlinger was going to be tackling Big Tony in a doc, I was more than intrigued. I mean, here was this self help guru who we’d all heard about for years, some crazy fire-walking stories, hypnotism rhetoric, etc, and now the same dude who did such a masterful and in-depth job with Paradise and Monster was going to try his hands at uncoveringTony Robbins.
Well, if you’ve seen the film, you may have been as disappointed as I was, if you were looking for a similar in-depth approach to who Tony Robbins, the person behind the guru was. Because probing and in-depth it ain’t. In fact, one could probably argue that it feels more like a massive marketing video for Tony and his enterprises, specifically his Date with Destiny immersion workshop.
Which kind of begs the question, when is a documentary a documentary and when is a documentary a tool for promotion? I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I overheard people saying “Did you see the Tony Robbins documentary” or “I loved his movie, and so I wanted to come see him live” at the afore-mentioned conference. Clearly, the film worked for them in a way that they were motivated to go see him speak. (And, in a way, so was I, eh?)
But purely on a documentary film level, I’m not really sure it works for me. There were plenty of moments while watching I’m Not Your Guru, where both Steph and I found ourselves either flabbergasted or moved deeply in what we were seeing Tony do… in his workshop. But that’s just it. The whole film is basically the entirety of one of his Date with Destiny workshops. There were barely any actual true one-on-one interviews with Tony. In fact, I couldn’t help the feeling that Berlinger and his crew basically had about one or two lunch breaks during the workshop in which they could interview him. So maybe an hour total tops? I’m probably exaggerating, but I’ll bet it wasn’t a ton more of that. He certainly didn’t spend any time with any of Tony’s family members, friends, colleagues. As a doc filmmaker, testimonials from people are generally at the heart of how one tells the story about someone.
It sounds like Berlinger – who is by his own admission a typically skeptical not into woo-woo New Yorker kind of guy, who was prone to being uber anxious and neurotic and just generally worrisome – was convinced by friends to attend a workshop. Apparently, only an hour into the program he phoned his wife saying that he was strongly considering leaving, due to all of the loud music, dancing & cheering, and personal sharing that was already occurring. When his wife convinced him to stick it out a few more hours, he then had this massive transformation and unfolding happen, whereby he not only finished the entire workshop, but would soon approach Robbins with the idea of making a documentary. I would have actually rather have seen THAT doc. Seen Berlinger’s transformation, if you will. That would have been more in-depth and intriguing to me than what ends up being a glorified coverage of one of Big Tony’s five day workshops.
At the end of the day, I enjoy and have great appreciation for much of Tony’s messaging – anyone who listens to the show knows that I am a recovering East coaster who has worked hard to break down his walls of cynicism, skepticism, and negative thinking – and now champions the power of positive thinking in both one’s personal and professional lives. I am a massive pusher of the positivity drug! But if you’re looking for an in-depth documentary about who Tony Robbins, the man behind the myth is, you won’t find it in I Am Not Your Guru. You’d be better served either going to a workshop and breaking down some walls or just watching this “documentary”, knowing that it’s really going to be a movie about one of Tony Robbins’ workshops.