Tony Robbins may have turned motivational speaking into an art form, but judging by the depiction of his workshops in the documentary “Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru,” it’s also something of a religion. While technically a behind-the-scenes look at Robbins’ popular six-day “Date With Destiny” seminar, director Joe Berlinger’s celebratory approach mainly plays like an advertisement. Even if he means well, Robbins’ technique raises a lot of thorny questions that “I Am Not Your Guru” chooses to ignore.
For the majority of its nearly two-hour running time, the movie focuses one of the dozen self-improvement sessions Robbins hosts around the country, where thousands of people drop $5,000 for the entrance fee to several days of lively interactive speeches. Robbins’ main schtick finds him wandering a massive room and barking out vulgarity-laced inspirational mantras, interspersed with powerful exchanges with individuals expressing frustration over their lack of self-confidence. As Berlinger shifts between wide shots capturing the sheer scale of the crowd and intimate closeups, Robbins’ extraordinary capacity to captivate his audience is an undeniable marvel. It’s easy to see why he does so well at this racket.
But these dramatic emotional sequences are only supplemented by brief snippets of the event’s organizers at work and Robbins’ own backstage musings about his method (with one slight digression into memories of his abusive childhood). Instead of diving into the nature of Robbins’ appeal, “I Am Not Your Guru” offers a bafflingly one-sided look at his manipulative prowess. And for anyone not automatically convinced of his pure intentions, that a few loose strings. By existing entirely within the confines of the world he’s created, the movie actively resists any possible skepticism about his unique skill. For the most part, Berlinger’s camera just watches in awe alongside everyone else.
Robbins is certainly quite the showman: Cussing away to wake up his clients from their sense of inadequacy, he waxes poetic on using “the science of taboo language” at every possible opportunity. “Don’t fuck it up,” he tells one young woman who’s coping with her abusive father. “There’s still time.” Acknowledging his larger-than-life presence to the room, he boasts, “I created this motherfucker.”
He’s not joking. A broad-shouldered, gravelly-voiced rock star, Robbins’ whole routine displays a masterful eye for performative gestures. While limited in perspective, his delivery is infectious, and those susceptible to his approach could save some money by simply absorbing his appeal through this encapsulation. (“I Am Not Your Guru” has been unsurprisingly snatched up for digital distribution by Netflix, which also hosts a popular TED talk Robbins gave about his extraordinary rise.)
About that money. When not focused on the seminars, “I Am Not Your Guru” repeatedly cuts to Robbins’ palatial seaside Florida mansion, where he engages in experimental workout sessions and sings his own praises. This contrast creates the unmistakable impression of Robbins exploiting his clients’ duress, no matter how much they might attest to its positive impact. The handful of attendees whom Robbins interrogates over the course of the movie suggest that he’s either preying on their fragile states, or that they’re just eager to embrace his laser-focused support. One prolonged moment finds Robbins engaging with a “Children of God” survivor who says she endured years of sex slavery in her youth; Robbins consoles her by appointing two men in the crowd as her supportive “uncles,” a peculiar designation that somehow seems to please the whole room. Never once do we see someone unmoved or even slightly resistant to Robbins’ approach, leading to the conclusion based on all available evidence that it’s immaculate.
But it can’t be that simple, can it? There’s an undeniable creepy aspect to the ability of one man to hold court over a single crowd eager to meet his every directive. While Donald Trump’s rise has encouraged comparisons to Hilter rallies, Robbins’ capacity to manipulate thousands of worriers at will has more subtly unsettling connotations, no matter how much his fans argue in his favor. Berlinger, a talented documentarian whose “Paradise Lost” films demonstrate a keen ability to separate fact and media hype, leaves room for viewers to reach their own conclusions—but hardly provides sufficient information to see beyond Robbins’ celebrity. Clearly an authorized project, it never leaves his perspective.
Nevertheless, Robbins’ juiced-up, aggressively virile tone to confronting life’s challenges often borders on parody. “Gimme a roar!” he urges one troubled man, which sets the stage for a bizarre climactic moment in which the crowd howls to the sky in a group chant that suggests Robbins’ adheres to “The Lion King” playbook for psychoanalysis. Viewed without sound, the scene could be mistaken for a faith healing ritual — which wouldn’t be that far off-base.
Ultimately, Robbins’ domineering character is so well-calculated that it appears Berlinger couldn’t peer beyond the curtain even if he tried. That fascinating dilemma makes the movie worth watching even though it presents an incomplete picture. Over the credits, the filmmaker asks his subject to explain who he really is. “I don’t think people give a shit,” Robbins replies. The main flaw of “Not Your Guru” is that the movie takes his word for it.
“Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru” premiered at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. It premieres on Netflix on July 15.