Last night I went to the premiere of the documentary Magicians: Life in the Impossible. I’ve witnessed this movie slowly come together over the past five years, and it was a vicariously cathartic experience to finally see it come to life on the big screen (Full disclosure: I personally know the directors and most of the cast. This is not an unbiased review.)
It’s a beautiful documentary. I say that very much as a subscriber to the adage that truth is beautiful. My own journey in magic was driven primarily by a desire to discover, understand, and share. I find it frustrating to have to keep secrets, and constantly look for chances to share as much of reality as I can.
This is the first movie I’ve ever seen that actually shows the truth of life as a magician, in all its glory, horror, and everything in between. Magic is a craft rarely associated with honesty, so it’s a rare pleasure to see a profoundly honest work associated with it. (The excellent Our Magic also achieves this, albeit via interviews rather than in-the-trenches documentary footage.)
The truth is frequently painful. Several people I know who have seen the documentary have described it as “depressing,” and to a degree I can see where they’re coming from. Being a professional magician can be an arduous journey. While the surface is often glamorous, the daily grind is usually anything but.
You never normally see this. It’s in most performers’ interests to project a facade of easy success, which makes it all the more admirable that the subjects of the movie – some more than others – were willing to let the camera show the less glamorous aspects that most people in showbiz keep carefully hidden.
My only lament is that the movie shows a very small sample of the different kinds of magical careers. Three of the four subjects are primarily gig-to-gig close up magicians. You don’t get to see, for example, the kids’ show magicians, the corporate speakers, the TV magic consultants, the comedy club workers, the cruise ship performers, and the blessed few magicians who have transcended the grind and are still working hard but living far more comfortably.
There is also, already, so much more to the stories than you see on screen. Several of the magicians depicted are now in life situations very different to what you would imagine from the way the movie ends (for one of them in particular, profoundly so). Stories are always more complex and layered than even a capable and well-intentioned director can capture.
All of this however, is completely forgivable when you consider the challenges of this kind of documentary. Even if it were three times as long and had full access to every magician on earth, it still couldn’t paint the whole picture. It captures some rarely-seen facets of the world of magic, and captures them with disarming and frequently hilarious honesty.
If you like magic because you enjoy fantasy, this isn’t the movie for you. Stick to the more whimsical Harry Potter, The Prestige, The Illusionist, or the highly questionable Now You See Me. But if you’re like me, and appreciate magic for what it is and what it can reveal – through studying deception, you can learn about reality – then I recommend Magicians: Life in the Impossible wholeheartedly.