Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru

Primal screaming.

Primal screaming.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Tony Robbins, Joe Berlinger, Dawn Watson, Bonnie-Pearl “Sage” Robbins, John Turbett, Sarah Fosmol, Diane Adcock, Jerrisa Escota, Vicki St. George, Tad Schinke, Julianne Hough, Maria Manounos. Directed by Joe Berlinger

 

Tony Robbins is a giant, both in a literal and a figurative sense. He is built like a professional wrestler, sure, but it is in the field of self-help that he stands out even more than he does in a crowd. He has for all intents and purposes become a brand name.

Every year he conducts a six day and night immersion experience entitled Date with Destiny near his South Florida home. More than 2,000 guests attended the 2014 version and acclaimed documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger – himself an attendee at an earlier DwD – brought his cameras along.

First off, let’s clear up a misconception that the title may be in part responsible for. This isn’t about Tony Robbins so much as it is about his methods. We see him at work, and it comes off essentially as a concert film and the similarities between a Tony Robbins seminar and a rock concert are a little unsettling. The star comes onstage to a swell of loud energetic music, his fans jump and scream and applaud and he raises his arms in triumph. All that is needed is two thousand flicked BICs to fully realize the comparison.

We get to see the people who come to this seminar/celebration,  and the stories that they tell range from first world problems (a woman who has difficulties in choosing the right man) to deeper issues (a young 19-year-old girl whose father is a drug addict) to the truly horrifying story of the star “intervention” (as Robbins refers to them as) – Dawn Watson, a beautiful young Brazilian woman who grew up in a religious cult in which sex was available to anyone in the cult upon demand; starting at age six (!) Watson was called upon to provide sexual favors for anyone who wanted them without having the right of refusal because, according to the cult leaders, sex was how we show our devotion to God. It had messed her up but good, unsurprisingly.

In some ways these interventions resemble an old fashioned camp meeting with the sick being healed with the laying on of hands. It isn’t quite that simple, fortunately – Robbins asks some penetrating questions and requires those he intervenes with to be brutally honest with themselves and certainly that kind of psychiatric practice is one I can relate to. Any kind of life change begins with complete honesty and accountability.

Still, I can’t help but feel a bit skeptical and maybe that’s because Berlinger really doesn’t ask any tough questions or, really, any questions at all. This is in effect a 115 commercial for Robbins, which tells me that Berlinger isn’t the right guy to make this movie; he’s not only had a drink of the Kool-Aid but he has been guzzling it ever since. A little bit more objectivity would have been welcome.

There is a fascination in watching Robbins go about his work and there’s no doubt that he is sincere about wanting to help others find their full potential and overcome sometimes crippling issues that keep them from enjoying the most out of life. I don’t necessarily think he’s a charlatan, despite my misgivings; he seems to have a fairly grounded education in psychological study and he does have a pretty good gift at understanding people and their needs. He has the charisma to inspire trust and he can have a total stranger answering the most personal and intimate of questions without batting an eyelash. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Robbins is the Andre the Giant of self-help.

The environment has a lot to do with whether or not this stuff works or not. The people who are there are there because they want to be – and paid over $5K for the privilege (NOTE: That was in 2014. If you wanted to go to the 2016 version, you’d have to pay almost $8K to go – if you could get tickets since it’s been sold out for quite awhile). People come from all over the world to attend and I found it amazing that there is a whole team of translators working in a booth nearby and broadcasting translations into headsets that non-English speakers wear. We do get a good look behind the scenes and see the army of technicians, team leaders and other workers make sure the event runs smoothly. From that aspect, it’s fascinating how much detail goes into each and every session and we get a sense of how Tony chooses those interventions he wishes to conduct.

What we don’t get is insight into who Tony Robbins. We hear, on more than one occasion, how growing up with an abusive mother and living with the pain of that condition led him to an obsession with helping people overcome their pain but what we don’t really get is a roadmap that takes us from Point A to Point B. Robbins appears to be an intensely private person and that’s okay, but we really don’t get much more than what we see at the sessions. His wife Sage comes on late in the movie to assert that what we see with him is really what we get – that he’s like that pretty much all the time, but it still doesn’t let us in much. That does make this a difficult documentary to like.

I would be curious to do a follow-up with some of the interventions that we see. We do get a graphic that tells us that the gal who broke up with her boyfriend on the phone because Tony advised her to got back together with him, and the gal with the drug abusing father reconnected with him, among other interventions.

This isn’t very critical of Robbins and maybe it doesn’t have to be. Certainly those who can’t afford the big time fees to go to one of these things might at least partially benefit from this condensed version keeping in mind that at one of these there are team exercises as well as well as these main hall encounters with Robbins – the sessions last 8-12 hours each day and involve a great deal of work on the part of the participant. Nonetheless this may appeal to people who are looking for answers and searching for a direction on where to find them, or who just want to see Robbins in action. All others, be warned that this is more of a puff piece than a hard-hitting documentary.

REASONS TO GO: You get the sense of Robbins’ commitment to those seeking his help.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally feels contrived and manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of profanity, some sexual references and some very adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie premiered at the fifth annual American Documentary Film Festival earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Decoding Deepak
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Cafe Society

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