The pleasant, straightforward Burt's Buzz documents a few weeks in the life of Burt Shavitz, otherwise known as the scraggly-bearded man pictured on those Burt's Bees skin care products stocked in drug stores everywhere. Like Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel Sanders, it can be disarming to think that there's a real person behind the merchandise. Just as one couldn't picture the old Colonel being a CEO while preparing batches of Original Recipe, the documentary reveals that Shavitz doesn't take a very active role in the company's business - and likely never did. Nope, he's happy living off the land as he's done since the mid-'60s.
In Burt's Buzz, we follow Shavitz as he dutifully attends a corporate function at the headquarters of major retailer Target, putters around on his modest estate with barn and small, primitive home, and takes a promotional trip to Taiwan with a group of cheering fans awaiting his arrival. Although many questions on Shavitz's current figurehead position in the company go unanswered, director-producer Jody Shapiro gets a lot of information out of the reclusive, caustic gent, adequately capturing his quirks. The most fascinating segments go into detail on Burt's relatively well-off upbringing, making a name of himself as a sought-after photojournalist in the '50s and early '60s, then abruptly dropping out to study beekeeping and self-sustainable living in rural Maine (where he still resides). Did success spoil him? In Burt's case, it only made him a more private, guarded person determined to live as off-the-grid as possible.
The documentary enters into problematic territory where it comes to Burt's Bees. How exactly did Shavitz end up being the face of a natural products empire? Enter Roxanne Quimby, a divorced mother who befriended Burt some time in the late '70s (the film is frustratingly vague on the specifics). It was Quimby who saw the potential in making candles from Shavitz's leftover beeswax, gaining the business savvy to wrap the products in homey yet sophisticated packages (bits of interview with the woodcut artist who did Burt's portrait are a highlight). She expanded Burt's Bees' reach to natural foods stores, and eventually bought out Burt's portion of the company and sold off the brand to a mega corporation (Clorox, in 2007 - another fact not mentioned in the film). Quimby's presence looms large in the documentary, yet she's only seen in old photos and a clip from a "path to success" television profile. Although one of Quimby's sons is included among the interviewees, the lack of participation by this crucial person in Shavitz's life generates more questions than answers. Are they still in touch? Did they have a romantic relationship? Those details are referred to, yet never made explicit. The non-plussed Shavitz seems to view the Quimby affair as water under the bridge, yet there's also a guardedness to him which likely wasn't present before. Shavitz is a confirmed individualist and born loner who only invests himself in his beloved companion, a Golden Retriever (Burt's assistant mentioning the death of a previous dog is the only time in the film when Shavitz gets emotional).
Burt's Buzz does a decent job of capturing Burt's eccentricity and dogged individualism, but overall it's something of a letdown. Shavitz's fish-out-of-water existence gets played out too often, while captivating little scenes from the film fail to coalesce into a satisfying whole. Without Quimby's crucial participation, this documentary is essentially a hundred ways of saying "He's a 19th century guy living in a 21st century world."
The Blu Ray:
Kino Lorber's Blu Ray edition of Burt's Buzz sports a good picture typical of what would be found on recent, digitally-produced films. The 16x9 image has muted, lifelike colors and soft light/dark levels consistent with the natural, filtered light sources used in the movie. Although Burt's Buzz visuals aren't outstanding in any way, the mastering on this disc is nice enough to be noticeable over the companion DVD.
The disc comes with a crystalline, spacious 5.1 Surround mix. The dialogue and sound effects are primarily in the center, clearly mixed yet not using the surround capabilities too often. The disc has no other audio options, nor are there any subtitles.
The main bonuses on this disc are three funny, educational Burt Talks to the Bees shorts directed by and starring Isabella Rosellini (who was also one of the executive producers on Burt's Buzz). The three-minute shorts have Rosellini explaining the functions of the queen bee, drones and worker bees, done in a manner similar to her previous whimsical shorts on the sex lives of insects. The film's Theatrical Trailer is also included. Trailers for Kino Lorber's Afternoon of a Faun and Big Joy round out the extras.
The 2013 documentary Burt's Buzz is as enigmatic as the man it profiles. While it's a pretty interesting portrait of the engaging, cantankerous co-founder of skin care product purveyor Burt's Bees, the film's reluctance to go into the nitty-gritty of Burt Shavitz's business affairs leaves it vaguely unsatisfying. Somebody else accurately described his story as The Social Network with aging hippies - if only Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher had gotten a hold of it. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.