By Gregory Crofton
At a social gathering Tony Robbins sensed that documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger had some unresolved personal issues. Not long after that Berlinger found himself enrolled in one of Robbins’ six-day seminars with the hope he could experience an emotional “breakthrough” and transform his life in a positive way.
This is what Robbins, backed by team of about 60 coaches and helpers, specializes in — a sort of rock concert of group therapy for 2,500 people. It’s unlikely that Berlinger paid Robbin’s $5,000 seminar fee. Probably Berlinger got a free ticket considering the fact that Robbins routinely touts his high profile friends and clients — wildly successful people like investor Ray Dalio, Virgin entrepreneur Richard Branson and casino magnet Steve Wynn — when he’s interviewed by the media.
Berlinger had a positive experience at the seminar and thought it would be a good idea to film it. This is how Berlinger ended up making a documentary — two hours long and set to premiere on Netflix July 15th — of Robbin’s “Date with Destiny,” held at a West Palm Beach hotel (not far from Robbins’ home, a mansion that sits right on the beach).
For many months Robbins resisted Berlinger’s idea to film him at work because he was worried about the crew disrupting the experience (a session can last 12 hours) for attendees. Berlinger finally got the green light to film after he agreed to give Robbins permission to kill the project at any time if he didn’t like what was happening.
The resulting documentary TONY ROBBINS: I AM NOT YOU’RE GURU, shot in 2014, is undoubtedly compelling, as is much of Robbins’ work. Standing 6′ 7″, a giant of sorts because a tumor affected his pituitary gland when he was younger, Robbins laughs off any thought of stage fright.
At 56, he’s been using his gripping and now hoarse voice to entice and influence people for nearly 40 years. All this experience — he coaches CEOs, works in 12 countries and reaches 200,000 people a year — captured by Berlinger, a world-class documentary filmmaker (BROTHERS KEEPER, SOME KIND OF MONSTER, WHITEY), and is about to be broadcast globally by Netflix. Potent stuff. Expect Robbins’ reputation to grow even larger with its release.
The film shows massive screens simulcasting Robbins to audience members while he lays hands on a select, often hand-picked few, and flips their emotional switches. Cue the Melissa Etheridge music, programmed lights and group think — “If you know what I’m talking about say ‘Aye’.” It’s all difficult to resist. Who doesn’t want to conquer their demons and make life better? It’s a religious experience without the religion.
But something so glossy and “healthy” clearly must have a dark side. And Berlinger to his credit doesn’t shy away from showing Robbins directing his staff to find out things like who in attendance is suicidal. Robbins calls these people “red flags.” Berlinger also captures Robbins’ crew filming interviews with attendees who Robbins personally helped achieve breakthroughs at the seminar. These interviews are shot for promotional use, have a cultish quality, and they’ll likely make you shake your head in disgust.
During a Q & A at a screening of the documentary at SXSW, Robbins appeared side by side with the director. “Tony run for president!” yelled one audience member. After Berlinger spoke from the stage for a while, Robbins couldn’t help but take things over. The question-and-answer session quickly became a short but free Tony Robbins seminar, which clearly some devotees had traveled hundreds of miles to attend.
Bottom line is that we, as stressed-out, over-worked and underpaid Americans, are easy targets for a man like Robbins. He offers what we need: attention, answers, time to look at ourselves, which can equal one big helping hand to get us farther up the mountain of life. Of course Robbins says it best: “Make your life a masterpiece my dear friends, God bless you.”
(Below) Joe Berlinger on Bring Your Own Doc, hosted by Ondi Timoner
(Below) SXSW Q & A with Joe Berlinger and Tony Robbins