The new Netflix documentary, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, was doomed from the start. Going in, I was unaware that the film, which grants a crew unprecedented access to document Tony Robbins’ $5,000 six-day motivational retreat, Date With Destiny, was funded by its own subject. This is kind of like when I knew Saving Mr. Banks, a fictional film about Walt Disney, couldn’t be both a Disney production and the profile we need of the progenitor of one of the world’s most influential companies. Even without this problematic funding issue, this documentary was made by a man, Joe Berlinger, who recently attended Date With Destiny and was moved enough to share the event with the world. In other words, aside from the major problem of Robbins funding his own portrayal, this film was preordained to be promotional.
For those unfamiliar with his methods and persona, Tony Robbins has been cutting to the core of people’s largest issues in intimidating fashion for the past 25 years, which means when Sinbad saw his TV commercial in 1995’s Houseguest, Robbins was new on the motivational speaker scene. But I Am Not Your Guru is the first time he’s allowed filmed access to one of his events and it’s certainly something to see. He’s an absolute virtuoso performer and orator, and you can see why people are waiting in line to pay $5,000 to see him. The question is whether Robbins’ therapy and his performance complement each other or are competing for first billing.
Before each day of Date With Destiny, Robbins has a debriefing with his staff, who have compiled reams of notes on attendees (their backgrounds, problems, proclivities, etc.) culled from small group post-mortems and pre-event research. While the film sets this up as Robbins looking out for “red flags” (looking out for people’s best interests and triggers), it’s most certainly how he designs his performance, calculating who will allow him to hit the proper marks at the proper time for optimal entertainment value. Once he has an audience “volunteer,” Robbins comes at them with incessant questions draped in an intimidating machismo and matching jaw line. He claims he immediately cuts right through people’s bullshit to get to the nerve of their externalized issues - his favorite tactic is awkwardly saying “fuck” a lot. The documentary suggests that almost every one of these situations, everyone’s issues, are reduced to whether their parents were abusive or overly protective. Of course, sometimes he bites off more than he can chew, like when he tells a suicidal young woman she can take another 30 years of depression before hearing that her depression stems from being born into a cult of sexual slavery. While Robbins recovers enough in that moment to (seemingly) satisfy the audience and the young woman, sometimes the strings start showing.
While all the emotional transactions between Robbins and his attendees are pretty remarkable, it’s hard not to consider this as nothing more than performance masquerading as therapy, something like inspirational improv. If it is legitimately therapeutic, Robbins’ methods are likely akin to drive thru therapy; it’s empty calories. I find it incredibly hard to believe he cured this woman’s deeply embedded depression simply by persuading her to become his disciple.
I went to a couple week-long Christian conferences in my teen years that remind me of Date With Destiny. As the end of the week approached, there was always an impending fear that the high of devotion and meditation done in the conference vacuum would dissolve in the “real world” - that all the promises you made yourself would be much harder to uphold in the mundanity and temptation of day-to-day life. Though I didn’t believe it then, the next week would be full of secular music, R-rated movies, name calling, and masturbation. This is something that Robbins explicitly comments on, but puts the onus on his extorted attendees of course. The highs experienced at Date With Destiny are undoubtedly extreme, but have to be akin to a flash in the pan. The promise that guests make at the event seem done out of adrenaline, not thoughtful meditation.
And the apparent rush of adrenaline that strikes them is often reminiscent of hypnosis or shock therapy. I don’t want to suggest that Robbins isn’t completely convinced that he is ending people’s sorrow and spreading love, but I very seriously doubt the effectiveness of how that manifests. Not only do I wonder if his stage skill trumps any therapeutic salve he offers, but there are also some large, pernicious problems at the center of the Tony Robbins school of thought.
Every once in awhile, it seems like the movie may be hinting at some of these more nefarious aspects behind the structure of Robbins’ teachings and company and how they affect his lifestyle. There are lingering shots of his opulent mansion that could preface a discussion of the man’s exploitation of people’s serious problems. The filmmaker includes telling quotes from Robbins about the importance of bolstering caveman-like gender roles while dismissing “the politically correct culture” - he dedicates an entire day to relationships, wherein he primarily focuses on disparaging “effeminate” men, making one in particular roar like a lion, beating his chest. Robbins suggests that binaristic gender roles aren’t socialized, but the way we’re “wired.” How he came to this conclusion, I haven’t a clue. Everything feels derived from Robbins’ instincts.
There are a couple moments where the interviewer injects himself into Robbins’ talking heads response, prodding him to dig deeper than the rote, surface level answers that are more than likely second nature by now. All of these moments teased me as they advertised an opening. They hinted at an avenue for constructive commentary and getting Tony out of his comfort zone - something that seems nearly impossible. Instead, every bit of I Am Not Your Guru is funneled through a confirmation bias, adding to the promotion of its subject.
At one point, Robbins refers to himself as a “practical psychologist.” Instead of his practice being founded on pre-existing scholarship (save for an essay about “drive and will” that some teacher gave him sophomore year), he incessantly tells us that he’s motivated by the abuse he incurred from his mother, during his childhood. It’s what has made him to be the man he is today, he says. Reminiscent of the central figure in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, he is motivated by an ethos built entirely upon his own whim. And from that inspiration is the central paradox of his teachings. Robbins is hellbent on the idea that loving parents are bad for growth and that having bad parents is the only way to self-realize (NO PAIN, NO GAIN). This idea and its unhealthy ramifications are never put into question by the filmmaker.
Although it may sound like I’m asking for an alternative film that portrays Robbins as the vulnerable person he must be underneath the (constant) performance, I’m not. As a church-going teenager, I remember seeing my pastor be confident and surely convicted of everything he said. Week in and week out, here was this man who never lacked for answers or an assured sense of reason. There was (and still is) a large part of me unsatisfied by someone who is always “on.” Surely, somewhere inside, my pastor was vulnerable and mutedly going through his own conflicts. That yearning to see the vulnerability of the performer isn’t exactly a satisfying description of why I Am Not Your Guru doesn’t work, because the man is always vulnerable. He’s always laying out his issues for everyone to see - or at least suggests that his mother’s abuse is the only mental trouble he’s had to endure.
Instead, I want a film that is offering perspectives outside of Robbins’. I want to hear contrarian thoughts. Specifically, I want to hear from attendees that perhaps aren’t so satisfied and come away from the event cynical and $5,000 poorer. On the last day of Date With Destiny, Robbins opens by asking “Who hasn’t had a breakthrough yet?” Multiple people raise their hands. Did all 2,500 attendees have an emotional realization that will change the course of their life? If not, why aren’t we hearing from those that spent a small fortune to watch Tony Robbins say “fuck” with a puffed out chest? Instead, we see another spectacular intervention. The biggest of them all: the woman raised into sexual slavery is healed. The film persuades us that no unhealthy stone is left unturned at Date With Destiny. The filmmaker is so determined to advocate on Tony’s behalf, and it’s absolutely depressing that such access was pissed away. But I suppose such access wouldn’t have been given were Robbins’ image not ensured from day one.
I came away from I Am Not Your Guru feeling oddly dirty. Or maybe just frightened. The New York Times review says the film “plays at times like a horror movie.” It’s true. Robbins slowly becomes increasingly terrifying the more you get a glimpse into his views and the less you see his status and power checked. If Joaquin Phoenix’s character from The Master made a documentary about his leader, it would look like this.