Peter Bogdanovich puts together a gushing love letter for one of the pioneers of cinema in The Great Buster: A Celebration, a documentary which assembles a wide list of famous faces to examine the long-reaching influence of Buster Keaton on cinema both past and present.
Any cinephile surely knows of the work of Buster Keaton, one of the major stars of the silent era who helped to define cinema in the early stages of its life. This is something Bogdanovich is very aware of, and something he wants to tap into, with a documentary that is fairly routine with delivering the facts of Keaton’s life, and is more alive when it is either dissecting some of the most iconic scenes of Keaton’s career or getting famous faces to discuss the impact Keaton has had on their own careers.
That means The Great Buster works very well as something that would appeal to those just discovering Keaton and those already familiar with him. You learn a lot about his general life and career, starting from his vaudeville days in a travelling show with his parents, before moving out to California to pursue a career in film. From there it charts him forging his on-screen identity, from the classic two-reel silent shorts like One Week and Cops, to the peak of his career with his independently produced feature films through the ’20s. It also goes into detail about his decline with the introduction of sound, his trouble with alcohol, and his eventual re-emergence on the world’s stage with late-career acting roles and commercials.
The more general biographic structure is what makes up most of the first half of the film, painting a picture of the kind of life that this performer had. From there, the second half goes into why that work remains such a strong influence on filmmakers to this very day. Bogdanovich, through his own witty, matter of fact voiceover, takes a closer look at Keaton’s 20’s heyday and such great films as Sherlock Jr and The General. The gallery of famous faces that he’s got him along with him to enthuse on some of the most finely constructed sight gags and action scenes is impressive and what they have to add is endearing. From fellow comedy greats and old Ketaon pals like Dick Van Dyke, filmmakers like Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino and Werner Herzog and comedic actors Bill Hader and Johnny Knoxville, everyone here loves the chance to wax lyrical about one of their heroes.
The Great Buster prioritises displaying long clips and segments from Keaton’s work, as Bogdanovich knows that the best way to discuss Keaton, is by looking at his best work. The power that watching those clips again does more than anyone could ever say to express how fresh and inventive Keaton’s performances still feel to this day. There are very few movie stars that could do what he did, and seeing that in full evidence is still a thrill. The closest comparison you could make today in terms of intricate physical audacity is probably Tom Cruise, and even then he doesn’t match up to the wit and ingenuity that Keaton’s work continues to radiate.
The Great Buster offers a chance to take in some of Keaton’s best bits, filled with anecdotes and insight from people who knew him and well and famous fans who adore him and the lessons he left behind on everything from comic timing to staging spectacle. For anyone who is a fan of the silent era and cinema history, this is simply a delight, and also a perfect introduction to the man himself for anyone looking to learn more about one of cinema’s most enduring icons, making you fall in love with ol’ stone face all over again.
Dir: Peter Bogdanovich
Scr: Peter Bogdanovich
Narrator: Peter Bogdanovich
Prd: Peter Bogdanovich, Charles S. Cohen, Roee Sharon, Louise Stratten
DOP: Dustin Pearlman
Country: United States
Runtime: 102 min