A few years ago, I saw a Kickstarter campaign for a documentary about magicians. I know a few people in that business and have always enjoyed the work of good illusionists and great sleight-of-hand artists, so I donated some money. The filmmakers, Marcie Hume and Christoph Baaden, spent the next few years following a quartet of magicians around with their cameras. The end result is “Magicians: Life In The Impossible,” which I watched this weekend on Netflix.
As we see them performing at The Magic Castle and corporate gigs and in restaurants, it’s clear the four magicians are very different performers, yet they have two things in common: they’ve spent thousands of hours working on their craft, but they’re struggling to patch together their careers and maintain relationships.
The magicians are:
- Jon Armstrong, who does close-up card magic, writes books, lectures, and tours. He’s a very talented but vulnerable guy who relates to audiences and workshop attendees well, yet his personal life is a roller coaster — we see him get married but then divorced in a very short timespan.
- Brian Gillis, who made multiple appearances on Johnny Carson’s show in the 1980s, but can’t get back to that peak, and can’t afford the upkeep on the big house he’s built and kept full of magic memorabilia.
- David Minkin, who just wanted to do magic on TV. He got his chance in 2013 on a series called “Magic Outlaws,” in which he and fellow magicians Chris Korn and Ben Seidman went town to town doing street magic, but the show only lasted a couple of episodes on Travel Channel.
- Jan Rouven, an illusionist who, with manager/partner Frank Alfter, had his own stage show in Las Vegas complete with female assistants and lots of moving parts. The movie shows their success and their frustrations, particularly when they discover that Criss Angel has stolen one of Jan’s big illusions. There’s a sense of great drama in that moment, but it dissipates quickly when Rouven and Alfter decide not to sue Angel for taking their idea.
Unfortunately, “Magicians: Life In The Impossible” finished filming before one of its performer’s careers came crashing down. Rouven lost his show at the Tropicana last March after he was arrested for owning and distributing thousands of child pornography images. He pleaded guilty to those charges in November, but the filmmakers haven’t added any mention of those crimes to the end of the documentary.
Even without that, the movie has other problems. In concentrating on the mundane personal lives of its subjects, the filmmakers don’t show enough magic being performed, nor do we see how they develop their tricks. In the end, they come off like other semi-successful performers in other fields whose talent isn’t always enough to pay the rent. Maybe that the “impossible” in the movie’s title.
I give “Magicians: Life In The Impossible” a 4 out of 10. Despite my very small financial contribution, it’s a disappointment.
If you want to see a great movie biography of a magician, I strongly recommend “An Honest Liar,” a documentary about the life of James “The Amazing” Randi, whose work I’ve written about often. It includes his earliest days as a magician, his years as a Houdini-like escape artist, and many of his TV appearances, including his legendary debunking of faith healer Peter Popoff on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” It also examines his decades running the James Randi Educational Foundation. Its final portion delves into a personal matter that Randi wasn’t particularly happy about having included in the movie — but acquiesced because of the way directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein handled it.
You can listen to my conversation with Randi about “An Honest Liar” (as well as many other times he’s appeared on my radio show) here.