TIFF13: Burt's Buzz (2013)

Burt’s Buzz is an amiable documentary that refuses to ask any sort of probing questions of its intriguing subject. Burt Shavitz has a face you probably recognize: craggy skin, a bushy beard with a conductor’s hat on. He’s the founder and face of Burt’s Bees, the popular honey-based skin care product, owned by Clorox. Burt hasn’t been involved in the business of the company for quite some time, but he’s still its iconic figurehead, selling the product in Taiwan where he’s a minor celebrity and showing up at corporate events to prove that, yes, this weird old man does really exist.

Burt is a fairly interesting figure, but this documentary gives little more than a cursory glance at him. He’s a bit of a wild man, living on the edge of civilization in Maine in a cottage without hot water or Internet. He doesn’t much care for other people and he easily does without modern appliances and so-called conveniences. His closest companion in life is his dog, and his biggest regret in life seems to be the death of his former dog.

He’s a born capitalist with a savvy business sense — he keeps working for Burt’s Bees even though he fell out with the CEO years ago because they keep paying him — but he doesn’t spend the money on anything. He lusts for money but isn’t a consumer. This is a man of contradictions, but director Jody Shaprio only seems interested in his iconic Thoreauvian independence.

Watching Burt’s Buzz I was reminded of how important it is for documentarians to probe their subjects, especially when those subjects are the sole focus of their films. During TIFF, I also saw The Armstrong Lie by American cinema’s prolific and premiere documentarian Alex Gibney. In the film, Gibney calls out Lance Armstrong on having lied to him about doping back in 2009, when Gibney was making a documentary about Armstrong’s comeback. Armstrong doesn’t give an entirely convincing apology to Gibney, but Gibney at least confronts the lie and discrepancy in Armstrong’s portrait of himself.

Shapiro had 88 minutes in Burt’s Buzz to let us know who Burt is and he lets the opportunity go to waste. How does this wild man rationalize being the face of a giant corporation? How does he view success? Why is he so ambivalent about his corporate icon? Shapiro explored these questions more in the Q&A after the film than in the doc.

Perhaps that’s what is most frustrating about Burt’s Buzz. It’s a feature length film, but it never justifies its running time. It could’ve been a 15-minute short and provided the same depth of investigation.

There are moments of bizarre intrigue in Burt’s Buzz. The Taiwanese’s public fascination with Burt as a pseudo-celebrity is baffling. But the documentary does not justify itself. Shapiro doesn’t ask the right questions. He doesn’t probe his subject. Burt Shavitz may have a story to tell, but it’s not the one told in Burt’s Buzz.

4 out of 10

Directed by Jody Shapiro; featuring Burt Shavitz.

Burt's Buzz played on Sept. 8, 9 and 13 during the Toronto International Film Festivalas part of the TIFF Docs program.