Plot: In the pantheon of movie legends, Buster Keaton is one of the all time greats, a pioneer who has influenced countless others that followed and despite the decades that have passed, a good deal of his work has proven to be timeless. His approach to comedy was masterful and earned him a spot next to Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and other silent film all stars, as one of the very best in the field. His stunts and set pieces were harrowing to watch, but always hilarious, as he would spare no risk or expense to make sure he got the shot he wanted. In this documentary, director Peter Bogdanovich looks at the career of Keaton, his legacy, and even his personal life, giving us an intimate peek behind the curtain at this cinematic titan.
Entertainment Value: This is a good introduction to Buster Keaton, one of cinema’s true pioneers and legends. The first two-thirds or so of the movie is a retrospective on Keaton from both personal professional perspectives, while the final third is a highlight reel of some of his most memorable on screen moments. I much preferred the retrospective look into his life, as while the clips are remarkable, they’re presented with little in terms of context. But I do see the value in the clips being focused on, as perhaps it will drive those new to Keaton to seek out his work or rekindle the passion in existing fans, to push them to revisit Keaton’s work yet again. At the same time, cherry picking the best or most famous scenes from his films might be counter intuitive, since some might assume they’ve now seen all Keaton could offer, which is of course, not the case. I hope those who watch The Great Buster are inspired to explore his filmography in depth, rather than be satisfied by the incredible clips featured here. In any case, it is a nice primer or reminder, depending on your experience with Keaton.
As I said, I much preferred the first two-thirds of the documentary, which explore his life and career. I wouldn’t call this a deep dive, but it does provide a nice, informative look at the trials & tribulations of both aspects of Keaton’s life. You can tell director/narrator Peter Bogdanovich has a deep respect and admiration for Keaton, but he also doesn’t shy away from darker moments or mistakes. This is most evident in the MGM days of Keaton’s career, which the movie doesn’t gloss over or try to put a fresh coat of paint on, which was a wise approach. At the same time, this does often feel like a tribute more than a documentary, with a lot of talking heads that offer their appreciation, but little in terms of personal stories or interesting first hand information. I don’t mind the fan service and to be fair, who wouldn’t be a massive Buster Keaton fan, but the interviews with some of the celebrities bring little to the table beyond praise. So perhaps there is room for more insightful interviews with likely lesser known personalities, but overall, this is a well made, loving look into Keaton’s life and career. I’d recommend it to fans of Keaton, silent films, and movies in general.