The Great Buster: A Celebration Review
Along with the likes of Werner Herzog, Quentin Tarantino and Mel Brooks, Johnny Knoxville appears in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Great Buster: A Celebration waxing lyrical about the comedy genius of Buster Keaton. “He was funny then. He’s funny now and he’ll be funny 100 years from now. How many filmmakers can you say that about?” As Knoxville reminds us, Keaton performed the sort of physical comedy that will never grow old and Bogdanovich’s documentary is a wonderful reminder of one of cinema’s early pioneers.
Close attention should be paid to the last two words of the title. Not that Keaton is undeserving of 100 minutes of lavished praise, but Bogdanovich is only concerned with highlighting the brilliance of the performer almost a century on from his storied run of silent films during the 1920s. While it doesn’t reveal much insight into the man himself, Bogdanovich’s love for Keaton shines through beyond its standardised format, allowing The Great Buster to work as a solid starting point for newcomers and a moment of reflection for longstanding fans.
Bogdanovich narrates the story of Keaton’s life in chronological order, from his childhood as a Vaudeville star, through to Hollywood stardom, post-silent era downfall and late-career revival. Known as The Great Stone Face for his blank expression and wide-eyed glare, Keaton became a star on stage before he could barely even walk – and then spent most of this career mastering the art of the fall. Initially guided by Fatty Arbuckle, Keaton wrote and directed a series of two-reeler shorts before making a string of classic comedy features in the ‘20s. While these were not as commercially successful as those made by Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton continued to push the boundaries of what physical comedy could achieve onscreen.
Along with a handful of other critics, actors and directors (including Jon Watt who reveals his two Spider-Man films sought inspiration from Keaton), the aforementioned talking heads discuss Keaton's influence on their careers and his groundbreaking techniques. But Bogdanovich understands that the star of the show here has to be Keaton himself and thanks to some beautifully restored 4K footage from Cohen Film Classics, it’s impossible not be won over by Keaton’s creative genius and reminded of why the shorts and features he released during the silent era remain so timeless.
After zipping through Keaton’s career for the first hour, the last third of the film sees Bogdanovich return to the most iconic period of the comedian’s career. Between 1923 and 1928 Keaton wrote and directed classics such as The General, Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator and Bogdanovich purrs over the filmmaking and comedic prowess of his subject. These would eventually cement Keaton as an icon of the era, before he signed a deal with MGM at the end of the decade that saw him lose control of his work, while also struggling with alcoholism and the arrival of sound in cinema.
Reference is also made to writer James Agee’s wonderful tribute to the comedy legends of silent cinema in an article for Life Magazine on September 3, 1949. 90 years on and it’s still hard to find a reason to disagree with his belief there has never been a better time for the genre. Bogdanovich may not have made the most compelling of documentaries, but he is coming from the same place as Agee and his passion for the period and all things Keaton is enough to compensate.