Netflix’s Tony Robbins Documentary Sells Self-Help Snake Oil
Last month, at a Tony Robbins-led Unleash the Power Within seminar in Dallas, at least 30 people were treated for burns sustained during a hot coal walk. For the 56-year-old best-selling author, business strategist, and self-help speaker, it was an unfortunate bit of PR: Witnesses described the exercise, undertaken by 7,000 attendees, as poorly organized and mismanaged, saying that several participants paused midwalk to take selfies. But if there’s a silver lining—and when you’re a life coach with a net worth of $480 million and a client list that once included Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela, you can probably find one—the incident is sure to drum up interest in director Joe Berlinger’s Netflix documentary, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru.
Spoiler alert: There’s no hot coal walk in I Am Not Your Guru, a behind-the-scenes look at Robbins’s Date With Destiny course in Boca Raton, Fla. If anyone is stepping lightly here, it’s the filmmaker. Granted not-quite-all access to the six-day, $4,995-per-head event, Berlinger trains his camera on Robbins at every phase: delivering keynote addresses on happiness and fulfillment to a frenzied audience; engaging participants in emotional one-on-ones about their dysfunctional childhood; confabbing backstage with staff and crew; even meditating beachside at his sprawling Palm Beach mansion. The result is more infomercial than exposé.
The vibe at the Date With Destiny seminar is World Wrestling Entertainment title bout meets big-tent revival. Robbins warms up on a minitrampoline before electrifying the crowd with gravel-voiced bromides like “I didn’t come here to fix you, because you’re not broken!” and “Life is happening for us, not to us!” and occasionally just by cursing a blue streak. The most revelatory aspect of the doc may be how often Robbins drops the F-bomb, a technique he describes as using taboo words “to provoke people back to the reality of the moment.” (No word on how Blessed Teresa of Calcutta responded to that method.)
Conspicuously absent from Guru is any critical analysis of Robbins and his motivational practices. Berlinger is best known for his Oscar-nominated Paradise Lost trilogy, about the murder convictions in 1994 of three teens in West Memphis, Ark., and their eventual exonerations. (He also directed the Bloomberg Businessweek-produced doc Hank: Five Years From the Brink, about Hank Paulson’s role in preventing the collapse of the global economy.) Here he pays little attention to the self-help master’s own path to enlightenment. Instead, he allows his subject to get by on glancing mentions of an unstable, alcoholic mother and a vague will to serve. The filmmaker similarly fails to call out Robbins on objectively bad advice. In one scene, he demands a seminar participant put her boyfriend on speakerphone to break up with him publicly; it gets awkward. At other times, Berlinger is stymied by limited access to the small-group workshops from which Robbins receives personal information about the people he later counsels—information he sometimes passes off as intuition in cold readings reminiscent of 1980s televangelists with earpieces.
For a film that makes a spectacle of radical honesty (“Raise your hand if you’re suicidal,” Robbins nonchalantly instructs at one point), the essential irony of Guru is that its director commits a sin of omission: He neglects to mention his own transformative experience at a Robbins seminar in 2012, as well as the role his subject played in funding this shoot, revelations that are part of the doc’s production notes. Despite the film’s titular claim, Robbins is very much allowed to play the guru for the full 116 minutes, with no one willing to separate the sage advice from the snake oil.
Near the end of the film, Berlinger does manage to ask his subject if he thinks people would appreciate a better understanding of Tony Robbins, the person. “I don’t think people give a s---,” Robbins responds. For a figure whose 38-year career has been built on always having the right answer, it’s a myopic and disingenuous conclusion. Perhaps someday another documentarian will hold Robbins’s feet to the fire for such details.