Buster was a vaudevillian child star who was in a troupe with his parents. Their act was famous for the part he played in it. Apparently, they would pick him up and toss him around the stage in a myriad of physically demanding ways. At one point they were arrested for child abuse, but the charges were later dropped.
No big surprise then that someone with this unique start to life would go on to define physical comedy and cinematic inventive genius in the first part of movie history.
Keaton starred in dozens of two reelers (short films that ran ahead of features, more or less what Pixar is doing now), feature films, commercials and even travelogues, including one in Canada for CN Rail. During the silent era, he was one of the world's biggest stars and his movies were massive crowdpleasers and money makers.
Then sound came in, Buster signed a terrible deal with MGM Studios that took away his creative control and he slid, fast, into a slump. The slump was both professional, and personal. Right around the time the advent of movie sound killed his career, he got divorced, twice, and developed a drinking problem.
The Great Buster goes into all of these moments, as well as close looks into some of his better known features, short films and later work and leaves your head feeling full in the way that cramming the night before a big test makes it feel.
The movie was made by Peter Bogdanovich, a divisive figure in cinema. On the one hand, he somehow got almost complete and unfettered access to some of the biggest names in the history of movies (Orson Welles, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, to name a few). On the other, for a man with relatively few true classics under his own belt, he is an egotist who has the air of someone who believes he is the sole reason cinema exists at all.
The Great Buster, for instance, starts with an interview, of himself, from the 70's, talking about Buster Keaton. He also narrates the picture and while his narration is well delivered, it has that same Bogdanovich air about it too.
The film also features interviews with a whole host of current Hollywood folk. Everyone from Tarantino to the guy that made Spiderman: Homecoming to Bill Hader chime in. Oddly, there is no interview with Martin Scorsese, who is usually all too willing to add his perspective and appreciation to these docs on classic cinema figures. There are so many interviewees in fact, that some of them come on the screen, say one or two sentences about Buster or his movies and are never heard from again.
If you've seen any of Bogdanovich's other documentaries, or any career spanning overview of a cornerstone cinema figure for that matter, you'll know what to expect. And if you're a fan of Buster Keaton, the flyover of his life and career will delight you I'm sure.
But the people who really need to see this, the people who I think Peter B. was making this for, are those who have forgotten or are unaware of Buster Keaton. Yes his best films are in black and white, and yes they are silent, but the sheer imagination, danger and precision with which he pulled off these stunts, gags and films back before digital anything, when all you had was a camera and a (hopefully) well thought out plan, need to be seen to be believed.
This man must never be forgotten. And as much as I love organic moviemaking that harkens back to the way they used to make 'em, I love that we now have a world of cinema at our fingertips. It ensure's pioneers like Buster Keaton never will be.