Historians, film-buffs, comedy-students alike, this is a documentary not to be missed.
Buster Keaton is the inventor of dark comedy and a true pioneer of cinema. The documentary film THE GREAT BUSTER is a loving tribute to his legacy as a director, actor, screenwriter, stunt performer and comedian.
Keaton’s story is lovingly told by director Peter Bogdanovich, who paints a picture of the trials and tribulations Keaton endured as a filmmaker. Buster Keaton’s life story is approached with respect and admiration. Film clips of Keaton’s works and photographs depicting his life story are inter-spliced with stories shared by Mel Brooks, Dick Van Dyke, Richard Lewis, Paul Dooley, Werner Herzog, Carl Reiner, Bill Hader, Nick Kroll, Johnny Knoxville, Quentin Tarantino and many more filmmaking/storytelling masters. These fellow creators are in awe of Keaton’s innovation and use his films as a source of inspiration to this day. Bogdanovich exposes the ongoing relevance of Keaton’s lifeworks through these interviews, and I loved finding out how Keaton has influenced my filmmaking heroes.
Prior to seeing THE GREAT BUSTER, I had only seen Buster Keaton’s iconic silent picture THE GENERAL. Almost a century ago when the movie premiered, it was not well-received and was Keaton’s biggest financial failure. Only in hindsight did we, as movie-lovers, discover its genius. Regarding silent film as an art, Charlie Chaplin is famously quoted as saying “Just as we got it right, it’s over”. The invention of synced sound in pictures forever changed the film medium. This rendered Keaton’s silent filmmaking talents obsolete which nearly destroyed the man and his career. The story of how Buster Keaton survived is a Hollywood Oscar-contending film yet to be made and is the fascinating journey of this documentary.
Keaton’s story is told chronologically and somewhat objectively. However, the director explores Keaton’s complex relationships with his wives, studios and counter-parts to provide context and show conflict to help us identify with “The Great Stone Face”. Keaton’s creative genius was often stifled by the studio system and these relationships with studios were often conflicted and unbalanced. The filmmaker also finds creative moments in his later career where Keaton was his freest and most inventive.
Keaton worked until his last days. He was a master of building suspense and creating comic release. One of his last projects was a Canadian Pacific Railways Series where he collaborated creatively with the director to create memorable moments and vignettes along the rail lines in Canada. The behind the scenes footage is a miraculous time-machine-like peek into his creative process and a joy to watch and understand.
Buster was humbled that anyone would even remember his lifetime of works. Once at an Italian film festival, he received a ten minute standing ovation. He couldn’t understand why. Watching this moment brought me to tears.
THE GREAT BUSTER is a must-see for all lovers of not only the comedy genre but action genre too. Witness the birth of visual storytelling and how it has shaped cinema today. Keaton’s journey from his childhood performing days to how he died is a fascinating story of one of this industry’s true great artists. Buster Keaton’s contributions to film were inventive, ground-breaking, and ahead of his time. Current Hollywood creators shedding light on Keaton’s influence on them is an education unto itself. Buster Keaton wasn’t fully recognized in his lifetime but his legacy lives on in how his creativity still inspires films made today. I walked out with a huge appreciation of his work ethic, comedic voice and as a pioneer visual storyteller. This documentary was an education, an inspiration and a tribute to one of our forefathers of cinema.
Written, directed and narrated by: Peter Bogdanovich
Screened at LAFF (Los Angeles Film Festival) September 23, 2018
In theatres Friday October 19th, 2018