Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 1, 2019)
If you asked 100 random people to name a silent film comedian, Iíd bet at least 99 of them would cite Charlie Chaplin. A documentary about fellow silent star Buster Keaton, 2018ís The Great Buster seeks to change that bias.
The movie offers a fairly standard documentary format, so we find many modern-day interviews. The program includes comments from biographer James Curtis, International Buster Keaton Society founder Patricia Eliot Tobias, Eleanor Keatonís friend Bob Borgen, critic/historian Leonard Maltin, producer Ben Mankiewicz, Bill Irwin, filmmakers Quentin Tarantino, Jon Watts, and Werner Herzog, and actors James Karen, Dick Van Dyke, Johnny Knoxville, Paul Dooley, French Stewart, Richard Lewis, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Bill Hader, Cybill Shepherd, Norman Lloyd, and Nick Kroll.
Buster starts with Keatonís childhood and his early years in show business. From there it goes into his shift to Hollywood, success, and eventual decline, with notes about his private life along the way.
Unusually, we get to Keatonís death about 60 percent into the film. After that, the program focuses on key moments from movies made in Keatonís 1920s heyday.
The operative phrase: ďfocuses onĒ, as most of Buster lacks much perspective. While we find many interview participants as well as nearly omnipresent narration from writer/director Peter Bogdanovich, I canít say we get a whole lot of insight into Keatonís life or work.
Sure, we find more than a few useful nuggets and get a minor sense of the man and his existence. However, Buster fails to deliver an incisive view of Keaton, as it tends to emphasize praise and general thoughts.
That side of Buster disappoints. Bogdanovich gives us the basics of Keatonís life but he doesnít dig too deeply, so one shouldnít expect the movie to offer a real sense of what made the man tick or the details of his work.
Buster compensates with all its film and archival footage Ė especially the latter. While I appreciate and enjoy the snippets of Keatonís notable movies, the most interesting aspects of the documentary show us obscure material.
Much of this comes later in Keatonís life, as we get bits of various TV appearances, commercials and other segments. These delight, as I really like our ability to see Keaton both ďpast his primeĒ and also in unusual circumstances.
Ultimately, these clips and the shots from Keatonís better known works carry the day and make Buster an entertaining experience. However, I feel it doesnít live up to its potential, as the documentary needs more insight than this one provides. Itís a fun collection of film snippets but not a deep look at its subject.