Many years ago, Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann thought it would be a fluffy good time to follow around one of the world’s leading gay adult film stars in service of a sexy, funny documentary. Little did he know at the time that his years of filming his star, Jonathan Agassi, would instead result in something so raw, touching, and harrowing, yet also profoundly universal.
Agassi, born Yonatan Langer in Brooklyn in 1984 but grew up in Israel, took off like a rocket when he made one of the most popular films in gay adult industry history. When Heymann’s film first meets up with him, he’s living the high life in Berlin, traveling the world for film shoots, winning awards, and allowing his alter ego to give him the confidence he lacked as a young child. We see behind the facade early on when he visits his mother and two siblings in Tel Aviv. His close bond with them, especially with his very supportive Mom, gives us a sense of his troubled upbringing, filled with bullying and an absent, homophobic father.
Agassi’s success, however, gives him his strut, his ease with genderfluid clothing, and his feelings of overall godlike sexiness. That effeminate little child doesn’t seem too far below the surface, nor does the damage and trauma he has carried around with him throughout his life. Agassi doesn’t shy away from using drugs, from cocaine to crystal meth, as his career soars.
One stunning moment occurs only eight minutes into the documentary when Agassi, sitting down for an interview, a lit cigarette in his hand, nods off mid-speech. Agassi’s then boyfriend intervenes, carrying him to bed. I’m afraid at this point, Heymann realized we aren’t in Kansas anymore. It won’t be the last time we experience this. From here, we witness a person spiraling out of control. He soon loses a major adult studio contract and makes money as an escort, where drug use seems either rampant or necessary to get him through nights where he’s too tired to have sex.
Luckily, Agassi has a beautiful relationship with a mother who allows him to be his true self, despite some slight pushback from his brother and sister. Clearly, Mom can talk about anything with her son. She accompanies him to a shooting location in Greece, loves letting him model his lacy lingerie and high heels, and watches his films, well, at least the talky, pre-sex parts! Although she’s a fearless protector, she also has the self-awareness to recognize that their dynamic feels unnatural. She feels she should be supporting him financially and not the other way around. Although unspoken, she seems to sense that her son has been wrestling some demons, and instinctively creates a safe space for him. It’s the core of a film which could easily have been a god-worshipping puff piece, but instead feels instantly relatable to any kid who grew up being made to feel less than their fantastic self.
Agassi’s father enters the picture to further complicate the narrative. In an attempt to figure out what makes his dad tick, Agassi questions him about his marriage to his mom. This scene had me riveted, trying to decipher what were lies and what were truths. This change in perspective, however, adds another layer to the theme of surviving one’s childhood.
Through it all, Heymann rigorously and patiently waits for his moments. After what seems like decades of manipulated narratives in documentary filmmaking, this one feels not only authentic, but emotionally connected. It’s impossible to watch this beautiful film without being shocked, but more importantly, without feeling something. Anyone who has ever had that one solid person who gets you, who is there for you no matter what, will connect with Agassi’s perfectly imperfect mother. Furthermore, Agassi, who never seems to be playing it up for the cameras, risks it all with his brutally exposed persona, flaws and all, laid bare for us to empathize. For those who want titillation, it’s there, although dialed back a bit from being explicit porn. Yet, this film, which deservedly won the Israeli version of the Academy Award for Best Documentary, proves there is so much more than meets the very sexy eyes.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life opens May 12th in New York at the Village East by Angelika, May 16th in Philadelphia at the PhilaMOCA, and on May 20 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Glendale. With filmmaker Q&As at various sceentimes, head to the film’s official website for more details.