Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru is one of those rare documentaries that manages to be utterly compelling without revealing anything new about its subject. There is an experience to be had, but no real takeaway outside of a fresh reminder that the world is an unimaginable horror where many or even most people are far worse off than you.
Filmed in 2014, I Am Not Your Guru is the first all-access look at self-help author and motivational speaker Tony Robbins’ annual Date With Destiny seminar in Boca Raton, FL. People from all over the world pay almost $5,000 each to attend this six-day event, and each day typically runs 11-12 hours in length with minimal, if any, breaks for food or bathroom use. That may sound a bit extreme, and it is, but it is nothing compared to what actually happens within each session. Robbins and his team vet attendees to find the most compelling and relatable stories, then use the testimonies of those people to encourage better decision making, honesty with one’s own self, and an overall healthier lifestyle. The message of the week and of the film itself is that life changes in a moment, and it’s the responsibility of each individual to decide whether they want that moment to be now or several years down the road. Robbins believes life is about constant growth, and he pushes those who attend his event to always be looking toward the next step of their life.
Watching Robbins work is a lot like watching a televangelist, only Robbins’ penchant for profanity keeps most conversations decidedly R-rated. He scans his audience of devoted followers with a gaze that says everyone is welcome, though filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s framing of such sequences allows for the acknowledgement that every move is far more calculated than those in attendance may like to believe. Taped to the stage just inches from where Robbins stands are photos and information regarding the people he will pluck from the audience to share with the group. Some are struggling to love themselves or regain confidence in their relationships, while others have much darker stories of suicide and lifelong sexual abuse. What unites them is a desire to not only be better people, but happier ones, and watching I Am Not Your Guru you get the sense that many believe Robbins to be their last hope. They have tried everything, and now they are here—often after selling most, if not all possessions to afford the event—waiting for a chance to speak to the man who seems to have all the answers.
Roughly halfway through I Am Not Your Guru, just after a lengthy sequence where Robbins helps a young woman with a history of being abused realize she is worthy of being loved, Berlinger asks his subject why he endures hearing the horrors of the world day in and day out. Robbins considers the question only briefly before responding, “It’s an obsession.” This is about as deep as I Am Not Your Guru gets in terms of pulling back the curtain on the man people such as Bill Clinton, Usher, Princess Diana, and Hugh Jackman have turned to for guidance in their time of need. At no point in the film does Berlinger step back from the events of Robbins’ seminar to assess what is happening or why, and that is where the documentary begins to fall apart. Is the girl who ran away from a cult and sold everything she owned to attend Robbins’ seminar unknowingly joining a second cult? Do the people he engages in sessions still feel the same about their experience and their ability to move forward in life days after the event has ended? Does anyone really change, or do they just make split-second decisions in response to peer pressure? Not only are no answers given to these questions, but no attempts to find resolution are even made.
It’s one thing to be objective in documentary filmmaking, but given how unobtrusive Berlinger and his crew are throughout Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, the movie feels more like an extended infomercial for similar self-help seminars than anything else. There is nothing to be learned about Robbins or his events in this film that has not already been covered at length in articles, interviews, or Robbins’ own best-selling books, and Berlinger’s refusal to press his subject on any aspect of his business ultimately prevents I Am Not Your Guru from having any real meaning of its own. The sharing portions are compelling, yes, but to what end? These somewhat manufactured moments exist to give the audience both in the crowd and at home a sense of Robbins at his absolute best, but knowing the people chosen are selected based on information they give Robbins’ team during group sessions earlier in the day deflates the power of the moment. The likelihood that these moments may move someone are present by intelligent design, not chance. Robbins isn’t cultivating something from nothing, but rather maximizing his ability to showcase his talents based on the struggles present in his audience. He is at his best when others expose the worst part of themselves, and Berlinger never makes any effort to explore the greater implications of that fact, or what it means to be entertained by seeing such an encounter unfold.
At best, I Am Not Your Guru is a missed opportunity. At worst, it’s an excuse to profit off the honesty and hardships of others, both for Tony Robbins and Joe Berlinger.