Imagine my surprise when a documentary at SXSW that I thought was entitled “The Incomparable Rose Hartman,” about a famous female photographer who catalogued Studio 54 in its heyfrday (70 minutes) turned out to be “Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru,”documentary from Director Joe Beringer for Netflix.
About the Film
The film follows self-help guru and author Robbins (name at birth: Anthony J. Mahavoric) through 6 days of his intensive and expensive self-help sessions entitled “Date with Destiny.” With 2500 people from 71 countries in the large ballroom, all having paid roughly $5000 a head for the 6 days, doing the math led me to a figure of $1,250,000 for the take on this event. Indeed, Wikipedia estimates Tony Robbins made $30 million in 2007. Pretty good for someone who never went to college and once worked as a janitor.
Having come to see a film that was only supposed to be 10 minutes longer than an hour, I found the nearly 2 hour film very long. The last (6th) day could have been omitted entirely, as far as I’m concerned, as it left me thinking of Don Draper at the end of “Mad Men,” while the preceding 5 sessions were more like Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (for which Cruise won the Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.) That film role was written specifically for Cruise by Anderson and modeled on a different self-help guru who advised people how to get dates.
Robbins would be the first to acknowledge that he “planned” himself into his overpaid career as a motivational guru, speaker and author. It’s a little bit like the old saying, “You don’t plan to fail; you fail to plan.”
Robbins did not fail to plan and he claims that taking care of an abusive, pill-dependent mother turned him into what he termed “a practical psychologist.” (Wikipedia says that his mom chased him out of the house with a knife when he was 17 and he never went back.) Today, Robbins the motivational speaker says, in the film, “If she had been the mother that I wanted, I would not be the man I am.” He also says, “Most of us are so busy living life that we don’t have time to design a life, and you’re going to wake up in 10 years and say, ‘Where did it go?’”
Tony is asked, at one point, by the director, what his own “breakthrough” moment in his life was, and he dodges the question as skillfully as any politician, while giving props to a high school forensic speech teacher in his sophomore year at Glendora High School, Mr. Cobb. Apparently, Mr. Cobb launched young Tony into a speech competition, telling him, “You’re not a speaker; you’re a communicator” and Tony’s stellar performance in the category of Persuasive Oratory led him, ultimately, to some work with neuro-linguistic programming, as well as skydiving, board breaking and firewalking to help those attending his seminars break through barriers (and, no doubt, be entertaining while doing that.) He also studied Ericksonian hypnosis.
Some notable quotes from the six-day seminar:
- “Most people overestimate what they can do in a year and under-estimate what they can do in decades.”
“I constructed this Tony Robbins guy.” (*Fact: Tony’s mother’s 3rd husband’s last name was Robbins and he adopted young Tony to give him that surname.)
- “Everyone needs something to move forward to, to move towards.
- “Date with Destiny is a place that you go to discover who you are and what you are about at this time in your life.”
- “Words have the power to pierce the pattern” (used to explain why he seems overly fond of the “F” word.)
- “Life is happening FOR us, not TO us.”
- “The whole thing is a dance.”
- “What’s prevented you from having the life you deserve?” (This after some scenes of meetings with staff, where they discussed the mix of variety/entertainment/energy/engagement and “people with red flags.”
In any group this size, says Tony to staff, there are going to be about 12 who are suicidal. He assigns various staffers to support those identified through their writing(s) on questionnaires as potentially suicidal. One young person had attempted suicide only 2 days prior. It is also these writings, handed in during the sessions, that guide much of the next day’s “interactions,” as dramatic situations take precedence over the ordinary.
For instance, one 26-year-old young attractive woman named Dawn, who was abused sexually as a member of a cult called Children of God. We hear Dawn’s sad story of sexual abuse of her entire family unit. She broke free, but now feels that she is not strong enough to provide emotional support to every other family member, all of whom she describes as depressed. We later learn that she has pawned all her belongings to get the $4,995 fee for the seminar, but it pays off when $100,000 is donated to Dawn to help others like herself. (She is now writing a book). Dawn also scores private sessions with Chloe Madonna, whom Tony touts as a great therapist, and 3 friends (male) whom she selects from among the mesmerized audience who agree to contact her monthly for 6 months.
One woman is made to call her boyfriend up on the phone and break up with him while everyone listens. (We are told later that this attractive forty-ish brunette had reconciled with her boyfriend after the class’ conclusion). I got the distinct impression that, if asked questions off camera, this woman might have been resentful of what Tony Robbins demanded of her. She did not seem to like the fact that he was “warm and fuzzy” to others he counseled, but not towards her.
The director asks “Are you ever concerned about giving the wrong advice?” This better-looking version of Dr. Phil says, “Depth is what people are missing. And when you take people deep, it’s riveting because it’s so rare.”
There was another encounter with a suicidal young man who seemed to be foreign-born. By the end of the tearful encounter, he is crowd surfing with a goofy look of happiness on his face as all his new friends support him. And a lot of the “therapy” of the moment seems to come from making those participating feel that they are surrounded by loving fellow humans, (whether or not they ever see these people again.)
Music is skillfully used to work the crowd into a certain mood prior to Tony’s arrival onstage, and music is used during his interactions (“Tiny Dancer” was playing in the background at one point). Translators are working with headsets to interpret Tony’s gems of wisdom into 6 different languages. Here’s one such truth: “You’re a miracle to everyone in this room. (Big hug here) With you, it stops. Pure love. You’re incredible. There’s no way I would feel like this unless I had felt emotions of my own that are similar. You take all the power back today.” (This to the Christian Soldier girl, Dawn).
I was struck by the fact that, for this documentary, which will be shown on Netflix, all the highlighted people were relatively young, well-dressed and attractive. There were no dowdy middle-aged women or overweight balding men being counseled about their difficulty adjusting to retirement (or some such). Everyone was beautiful, just like the sit coms on TV. And Tony, himself, is a handsome physical specimen. He grew 10 inches in high school (due to a tumor on his pituitary gland) and is an imposing physical presence, with perfect white teeth and a huge smile. He has been married 2 times and has paid judgments of $650,900 to Wade Cook for copyright infringement and plagiarism, [according to Wikipedia], and also was forced to pay $221,260 to the FTC, but he has also won at least one libel suit for a much smaller amount.
At one point, all the adult participants are shown making posters for Day 6 (the final day) and they are required to sit in a yoga Lotus position, palms upturned, chanting OM and thinking about 3 things they are grateful for at that last meeting while Tony says things like, “Take the greatest gift home—who you’ve become. You’ve been on a journey, not a trip. You were the concert…Heal the boy and the man will appear.” He talks about the “birth of new values, of a new life” and says the primary question is, “what you focus on in your mission statement.” (These were the posters all the participants were busily drawing prior to Day 6.)
Here At The End
Meanwhile, we learn that Tony’s staff of approximately 50 people are telling him how late he is running (2 hours, at one point) and he is selecting different strategies to employ in his final delivery of material (second wife Pearl “Sage,” married in 2001, is an acupuncturist, among other things.)
Tony Robbins’ TED talk in 2007 is the sixth most-watched TED talk, according to Wikipedia. He played himself in the 2000 movie “Shallow Hal,” as the guru hypnotizing Jack Black so that Jack Black could see the inner beauty of Gwyneth Paltrow’s obese female lead. Interesting, inasmuch as nobody in THIS documentary Is allowed that flaw. On Season 3, episode 22 of “Family Guy,” Tony Robbins was lampooned and a non-human character shown on TV screens in “Men In Black” is Robbins.
He currently assists Oprah with a Lifeclass on her OWN network and is going to be the co-owner of a Los Angeles soccer league with Magic Johnson, Mia Hamm and Peter Guber in 2017.
Film editor for this Netflix documentary was Cy Christiansen. To Mr. Christiansen, I’d say, “Day 6 dragged.”