Director Peter Bogdanovich pays tribute to the life and work of Buster Keaton in this biographical documentary about one of cinema's greatest filmmakers. Opening with his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, Bogdanovich starts the “celebration” singing the praises of Keaton. He then presents the story of Keaton in a near-linear manner.
Joseph Frank Keaton was born into a vaudeville family in 1895 and at three years old joined his parents' act, thanks to his ability to take a fall without getting hurt. Legend has it, Harry Houdini was responsible for giving young Keaton the name “Buster” after seeing him take a fall down a flight of stairs without injury.
After vaudeville, Keaton transitioned to film in 1917, getting his start working for Fatty Arbuckle as a gag writer and second banana. His first appearance was in the short, The Butcher Boy, where his athleticism was a great fit for slapstick. After a few years, he took the lead in shorts and features. His deadpan expressions augment the humor, which he learned from his stage days, and he was a box-office hit through the '20s.
In 1928, he signed up with MGM, which he considered the worst decision of his career. After The Cameraman, his last great film, the studio took tight control, which kept Buster from being Buster. It shows in the work, as they don't seem to understand why they hired him. Stuntmen were used and he was unsuccessfully paired with Jimmy Durante. He went on to make shorts for Educational Pictures and Columbia, many of which weren't looked upon favorably.
Through the remainder of his career, Keaton took on small roles in order to work, appearing alongside Charlie Chaplin in one scene for Limelight and a cameo in Sunset Boulevard. But he still retained his standard of quality as seen arguing to make a scene funnier with a director of the Canadian short film, The Railrodder. Thankfully, Bogdonavich holds off showcasing some of Keaton's work until after presenting his death, allowing audiences to remember Keaton at his very best and funniest.
The film features famous fans praising Keaton's talents in interview segments, from filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Jon Watts, the latter talks about Buster's influence on Spider-Man: Homecoming; funny people like Mel Brooks, Bill Hader, and Richard Lewis, who knew Buster's third wife/widow Eleanor; and stuntman/actor Johnny Knoxville, who attempted to recreate the bit where the front of a house falls around Buster.
The Great Buster: A Celebration serves as a great introduction for those unfamiliar with him. While it might not offer any new information for fans, the film is an absolute delight in large part to the many entertaining clips taken from Keaton's filmography.