‘Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru’
Joe Berlinger
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
3 (out of 5) Globes

If you’re coming into the doc “Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru” cold (or as a Robbins acolyte), you might find it an unusually well-shot and intense infomercial. If you know the CV of its director, Joe Berlinger, you’ll come at it completely differently. Seeing his name in the credits completely alters how we approach it. It might even make us mad.

Berlinger doesn’t make infomercials. He, along with the late Bruce Sinofsky, made the “Paradise Lost” docs, which helped free the West Memphis Three, as well as the metal-dudes-in-therapy saga “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.” Those were cinema verite greats that stayed strictly fly on the wall. We may come in expecting a Joe Berlinger doc about the super-motivational speaker to be some kind of expose. Or maybe it will humanize him, much as “Metallica” revealed a bunch of tatted-up badasses to be, deep down, whimpering children not above beginning sentences with, “What I’m hearing is…”

Instead we get a six-day Tony Robbins seminar, reduced to its most electric bits. There’s a bare minimum of alone time with Robbins himself, during which he’s in canned interview mode, rattling off rehearsed lines about his method and beliefs. Most of the time we’re watching him browbeat his followers into self-improvement, switching between cuss words and teary hugs. We don’t get to the bottom of Robbins, though he does admit his public self is a “character” — a towering superhero that sprang from his once-fevered mind like Athena from Zeus.

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We also don’t get to the bottom of why Berlinger made it — but that makes it all the more fascinating. Berlinger has stated in interviews that the film was born out of his own experiences at a Robbins fandango, which initially drove him nuts before he (mostly) surrendered. He wanted to capture the experience of being in the middle of the madness. Like a good observational filmmaker, though, he keeps all this and himself out of the picture and lets you suss out his take on Robbins — or, better yet, figure out yours. 

And what do we see? A brick s—house of masculinity in touch with his “feminine side,” who seems to genuinely care about the strangers paying small fortunes to hang with him in drab, overlit resort auditoriums usually reserved for narcotizing business conferences. His brusqueness and love of profanity is meant to be shocking but also playful. “What makes you hate yourself? Is it the red shoes?” he asks someone in a world of hurt, swaying sharply from sincerity to joke insults. One woman, anguished over a flatlining relationship, is egged into calling up and airing her break-up over the loudspeakers in front of a room of strangers. This is strength. Embarrassment is self-improvement.

The people love it. There are no naysayers, no disappointed patrons (in part because Berlinger says he found none). Images of mass adulation look like footage from the kind of ’60s alternative psychiatry sessions you see in “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” or maybe from a doomsday cult. Berlinger doesn’t present it that way. The music over montages is triumphant, emotional. He’s on the level, but that doesn’t mean the film is flat-out pro. The tete-a-tetes between Robbins and each brave soul who stands up for public flagellation are filmed in tight, arresting close-ups, the camera zeroing in on tears spewing from both the sufferer and, sometimes, the aggro-emotional he-man himself. 

Are we supposed to take this seriously? Does Berlinger approve of stock self-help lines like, “You want to know what pure love is? It’s you.” Maybe? But that ambiguity, that refusal to steer us to one opinion or another forces us to evaluate Robbins with an open mind. We don’t have to like what he does. We can find him and his empire creepy. We can still think, as we might do, that the self-help industry is for dupes and failures. Perhaps we suddenly consider that we might even need someone like a Tony Robbins to berate us into a happier life. By watching “Tony Robbins,” we have to re-question old beliefs, and maybe arrive at a more nuanced opinion. It’s hard to feel knee-jerk when the burly homunculi is right there, his face three feet tall and filled with real-seeming concern, on our TV screen.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge