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THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION (2018) review

April 9, 2019

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written by: Peter Bogdanovich
produced by: Peter Bogdanovich, Charles S. Cohen, Role Sharon Peled, and Louise Stratten
directed by: Peter Bogdanovich 
rated: Not Rated (some mild language)
runtime: 102 min.
U.S. release date: October 19, 2018 (Chicago International Film Festival), October 5, 2018 (limited), April 2, 2019 (DVD & Blu-ray)

 

“In a way, Buster Keaton is the essence of movies. He is one of the inventors of cinema.”

 

Everything you could want to know about Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary about Buster Keaton is right there in the title. It is both a celebration of the man’s life and a gab-fest at a gathering of world class raconteurs. If, like me, you gravitated toward Chaplin and never really explored Keaton’s catalogue, this is the perfection introduction to one of our greatest screen treasures.

Perhaps the biggest sin Bogdanovich’s “The Great Buster: A Celebration” commits is not doing a deep enough dive into the life of a complex genius. Devotees and die hard fans of the multi-hyphenate talent will likely find little here they don’t already know beyond some great and talented people’s opinion on Keaton’s life and work. There are two aces up Bogdanovich’s sleeve in this film, however, the first being a star-studded litany of celebrities swapping stories and appreciations for The Great Buster.

 

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The second ace up Bogdanovich’s ascotted sleeve is the film’s third act, which consists solely of footage from ten of Keaton’s best films. This is much more vital to the film’s success, for me at least, because sometimes a good documentarian knows when to get out of his subject’s way and let the man do all the (silent) talking. Apart from some bridging and context narration, Bogdanovich lets Keaton take over, showing off a highlight reel of the best work from the most creative period in his life.

As to the list of celebrity admirers sprinkled throughout the film, it’s an eclectic mix of noted comedians, historians, comedic stunt performers, and famous directors. Werner Herzog provided the quote that opened the review, and it’s no big shock to see Mel Brooks, Richard Lewis, and even “Spider-Man: Homecoming” director Jon Watts, who compares the masked webslinger of his film to Keaton’s expressionless face.

Some appearances seem strange, however, and the film isn’t always quick to let on why Johnny Knoxville or “3rd Rock from the Sun” actor French Stewart are there. Yet both pop up with interesting and insightful details about Keaton’s life, Stewart having played the great stoneface in California several years ago, and Knoxville having gleefully put himself in physical danger from the beginning of his career.

 

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This is a film more concerned with anecdotes and often apocryphal tales more than it is with details of Keaton’s life. That’s not to say that it’s not comprehensive, it covers him from cradle to the grave. It just might feel a bit rushed at times, but nobly so as the gorgeously restored footage presented at the end of the film makes the entire endeavor worthwhile on its own.

Having now watched this film twice in the span of 72 hours, I can say that it works great for both a Keaton novice and one familiar with his work. My second viewing gave me a deeper and richer understanding of Keaton in much the same way as a second viewing of any film you enjoy. Once you know the ending, seeing how they get there and watching them end on a high note leaves you feeling exhilarated.

Buster Keaton was an exhilarating filmmaker, one whose boundless energy radiates off the screen. Knoxville says near the end of the film, and I’m paraphrasing here, but Buster Keaton’s comedy will never not be funny. It was funny then, it’s funny now, and it will be funny a hundred years from now. I hope that the distributor of this work, Cohen Media, continues the work they’ve begun on getting these films the restoration and tender loving care they so richly deserve.

 

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RATING: ****

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