Tony Robbins patrols the stage in front of more than 2,500 people at his “Date with Destiny” event in Boca Raton, Florida in 2014 and amidst his pumped-up provocations reminds the rapt audience, “I am not your guru.”
You’d have trouble convincing the faithful in the crowd. As Academy Award-nominated documentarian Joe Berlinger’s new movie, which takes its name from the aforementioned admonition, proves, if Robbins is not these people’s guru, he’s possibly something even more. Miracle worker? Amphetamized therapist? Self-help coach? Likely. And to the cynic, possibly a charlatan.
Robbins would likely tell you that he is simply a cold bucket of truth, a mirror, a call to action and an instruction manual for so many people who desperately want to reshape their lives.
At least once a year for the past 25 years, Robbins has hosted the event (about $5,000 a head in 2014), which he calls his favorite of the year. Berlinger, who attended one a couple of years before the making of the documentary, underwent a personal transformation, and Robbins granted the filmmaker of the 2012 SXSW award-winner “Under African Skies” unprecedented access to show what goes on behind the closed doors at the hotel in Florida.
The movie, which made its world premiere Monday at the Paramount Theatre, opens with Robbins practicing one of the interventions that comes to define the movie and the six-day seminar. He is staring deeply into the soul of a young German man who has admitted to battling thoughts of suicide. Using his unique brand of tough love, Robbins mixes humor, mild intimidation and genuine empathy to coax the young man from his fear. Next thing you know, the kid is being passed along the hands of the audience. One minute scared for his life, the next crowd surfing on a wave of love from those who had just recently been strangers.
Hard to believe? Yes. But over the next two hours, Beinger shows Robbins repeating the same intervention style of very public therapy over and over with patients. From a teenager cloaking parental issues under the guide of body-image issues to a couple looking for common ground on which to move forward with their stalled relationship.
The crowd gets worked up each day into a frenzy, like the spiritual version of a late-night show warm-up act, before Robbins takes the crowd to ecstatic heights and then starts drilling down on individual problems. Those unique problems release a wellspring of relatable emotion, and many in the crowd are reduced to tears as they listen to others’ stories. It looks like the scene from a televangelist broadcast, but the God in this scenario seems to be one who resides within everyone in the audience. And there are a lot more cuss words than you’ll find at church.
The cameras follow Robbins to his palatial oceanside estate each night and back to the hotel in the morning, as Berlinger attempts to strike at the core of Robbins’ motivation. We find out a bit about the massive
man who has counseled presidents and spoken to more than four million people. Most tellingly, his mother emotionally and physically abused him, but he eventually learned how to go from being a people pleaser to a dynamic force of strength. He mentions several times how he consciously crafted the person he became.
We don’t get to see all of the ways he did that or understand much about the motivating influences in his life, besides his mother and a high school debate teacher who arrived in a moment of grace for Robbins.
It is clear that he is a man who is disciplined with what he puts into his body and how he maintains his physical and spiritual sides, but we don’t learn much more about what propels him beyond his childhood trauma and his general obsession with helping others change their lives and achieve their potential.
His methods seem unorthodox, but there is little doubt in watching the faithful that they believe. And when Robbins looks into their eyes and tells them he loves them, and when he stares directly at Berlinger and tells him he is simply driven to help people reshape their lives, you have no choice but to believe him, even if you can’t piece together all of the exact why and how.
“Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru” screens again at noon Tuesday at Alamo Slaughter, 11:30 a.m. Thursday at Marchesa, and 1:15 p.m. Saturday at Stateside. The movie will appear on Netflix later this year.