Buster Keaton is considered to be one of the most famous comedians and filmmakers from the silent film era. Nicknamed “The Great Stone Face,” Keaton was well known for his physical comedy, keeping a deadpan face, and never breaking a sweat when he performed a gag. His films have inspired countless generations and filmmakers. From filmmaker and film historian Peter Bogdanovich, The Great Buster: A Celebration often is an exultant look at what Keaton accomplished, even though it just skims the surface at times.
In the documentary, Bogdanovich takes a look at the life and career of Keaton. From his vaudeville beginnings to making his first shorts to becoming a star, Bogdanovich traces Keaton’s every step. Interlaced throughout are comedians and filmmakers who were inspired by Keaton’s work, while also highlighting the work that Keaton produced throughout his time.
This doc has the potential to create new fans of Keaton’s work. Bogdanovich showcases clips that still hold up today, and they’re the best parts of this documentary! Keaton’s stunts were crazy in the silent film era, yet still will make you laugh. It’s also enlightening to see how some of his gags were later inspired in future films and can be seen even today as homages. You can certainly tell that Bogdanovich has an appreciation for Keaton throughout the runtime. The documentary begins with Bogdanovich on a talk show talking about a story he heard about how Keaton reshot an ending to one of his films, Seven Chances. Bogdanovich also does a good job showcasing old photos, newspaper clippings, and even Keaton’s later works, including those where he starred in MGM films, so we can see how different Keaton felt and looked when he was confined to the studio system of filmmaking. Finally, the film assembles a good selection of comedians, actors, and filmmakers to talk about what Keaton meant to them and his influence on some of their works.
While Bogdanovich certainly knows what he’s talking about, sometimes his narration can be a little dry, like a film professor presenting a lecture to his class. While the documentary covers a lot of ground, it never dives deep into certain avenues that are brought up that could potentially take a more interesting route, like his time in World War I. Unlike other documentaries that have their subjects talk through archival footage, we never really hear from Keaton during the course of the doc, save for a clip Bogdanovich features from another documentary. Basically, what this documentary needs is more meat to its bone.
Overall, The Great Buster: A Celebration doesn’t delve too thoroughly in its subject matter, and therefore becomes a lightweight doc. As the subtitle states, this is primary a celebration of a comedian and filmmaker who still inspires filmmakers today. This is the type of documentary that will probably be shown in film school classes and appease film historians. If you’re a fan of Keaton’s work, you will get a kick out of this. It might also be a fine introductory course to someone who’s never seen one of his films before, and could be a gateway to experience more. If nothing else, this documentary shows what a genius Buster Keaton was.