Joe Berlinger’s immersive look at the motivational speaker’s popular seminar debuted at SXSW earlier this year. The film has also screened at Hot Docs, Sheffield, Sarasota, Montclair, and Nashville.
Tony Robbins has made a career of offering pop psychology for a price to an audience hungry for personal transformation, whether in the realms of finance, relationships, or health. Berlinger, who has attended past seminars, invites viewers to attend the favorite of Robbins’ many speaking events – the intensive six-day “Date With Destiny.” When viewed within the context of a concert film, rather than a critical exploration (which this most certainly is not), Berlinger’s project offers a “you are there” experience, allowing the audience to witness the pyrotechnics both literal and metaphorical that take place when the toothy-grinned, gruff-voiced, and oddly charismatic host confronts attendees about issues that are holding them back from being fulfilled. The film captures several interventions, marked at the same time by both their clear emotional intensity and their too-surface treatment, as Robbins quickly cuts through any deep analysis to zero in, for good or ill, what he surmises to be at the root of the seminar attendee’s reason for speaking up – a young woman asking about diet concerns is cajoled into a teary admission of estrangement from her father; another woman is pressured into breaking up with her overly-nice boyfriend on the phone in the middle of the seminar audience (end cards reveal they get back together). While it’s clear that the self-selecting environment – audience members pay $5000 for the seminar – draws individuals predisposed to seek and accept all manners of advice, a more detached viewer is not likely to become convinced here. Extending the concert film comparison here, existing fans will find much to be enthusiastic about, while those who never cared for this kind of music won’t be rushing out to buy the next album.