Documentaries evoke more emotion than your average film purely because of the realism. On occasion, there's a documentary that makes that realism difficult to believe. The latest iteration of this kind of documentary was Tiger King, which caused a nationwide phenomenon and a TikTok craze. But buried in the archives of Amazon Prime is a similar doc telling the story of James "The Amazing" Randi, who died yesterday at the age of 92, after a long life of deceiving and exposing.
The title of the documentary about Randi is also the most succinct explanation of who he was— An Honest Liar. While he got his start as a mentalist in Canada, he soon found a more noble pursuit in exposing other magicians who claimed to have supernatural powers. Magicians, to him, were honest. They said they were going to trick you and then tricked you. But so-called psychics, mentalists, and faith healers attempted to pass off their foolery as actual paranormal powers, which could get very dangerous.
In order to expose these scammers, Randi used the same techniques they did. He manufactured a press kit for a man named "Carlos" who apparently had been possessed by a 3,000 year old spirit and booked him for multiple appearances all throughout Australia to wide approval, only later to admit it was all fake.
Randi was at heart still a showman, and in between these attempts he often appeared on late night shows, performing and debunking so called "powers." He consulted with the prop team before famed psychic Uri Geller performed on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and was able to stump him to the point where the show was taken off the air while Geller tried to show his telekinetic prowess.
An Honest Liar depicts all these exposés and more. He foiled faith healer Peter Popoff when a fellow magician realized he was wearing a hearing aid. As Randi says in the doc, "This guy claimed to heal the deaf, he wouldn't need a hearing aid." Turns out, he was using radio communications to obtain personal information about his audiences.
Randi's personal life is just as interesting as his career. He fell in love with José Alvarez, the man who posed as the possessed man "Carlos." He didn't come out until the year 2010 at the age of 81. After 26 years with Alvarez, Randi's own deception came to light: José wasn't who he claimed to be.
It's the kind of twist that's straight out of Tiger King, but here it's much more sympathetic. Instead of all the shocking reveals being motivated by ambition, greed, and jealousy, they're motivated by love, justice, and a desire for the truth.
Randi was the kind of man you couldn't help be charmed by, and in the event of his death, his story should be heard by as many people as possible. In 2009, he told SF Weekly, "One day, I'm gonna die. That's all there is to it. Hey, it's too bad, but I've got to make room." One watch of An Honest Liar and you'll see the massive void he leaves.
An Honest Liar is now streaming on Amazon Prime.