Review: The Great Buster

The full title of this documentary is The Great Buster: A Celebration and it certainly is that. From Dick Van Dyke to Mel Brooks to Werner Herzog, silent film star Buster Keaton aka The Great Stone Face is lauded for his enduring influence on film and comedy. This comprehensive bio-pic is from director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon) who loves telling the stories of the great men of cinema. And Keaton surely was one of the greats. The film is a fairly straightforward chronological telling of his life and career featuring lots of talking heads and film clips from his movies. For those who are unfamiliar with his work, the film will no doubt make them want to see his work. And for those who already knew him, it’s a loving reminder of a man way ahead of his time.

The gist of the story: Keaton was born into a vaudeville family and became a star at the age of 4. His serendipitous meeting with silent film star Fatty Arbuckle brought him to the screen, but his own talents both in front of and behind the camera made him the icon he remains today. The film walks you through his early successes, but then chronicles his demise when he made the mistake of signing with MGM and losing the autonomy that allowed him to make his greatest works. The studio system robbed us! But Keaton kept working, though never again producing the kinds of genius comedy he had for a brief period in the 20s.

A vast array of talking heads beat the drum of his genius and his influence throughout the film, with a few particularly odd choices. Do we need to know that Johnny Knoxville credits him for Jackass or that Spider-Man Homecoming director Jon Watts thought of him as a model for the faceless Spidey? Herzog and Tarantino both count him among the great innovators in the cinema. And several comedians wax on about why he was such a comic genius.

But at the end, most viewers who aren’t actual film history buffs will just want to sit down and watch a few of his films and see for themselves. Fortunately, most of his movies have been or will soon be digitally remastered (by the producers of this film) and available for viewing. I have a hard time with people telling me something is going to be funny and then watching. So I’d suggest you watch the Keaton films first and then the documentary. It will add to your appreciation of the man, but not necessarily of your viewing experience.

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