Burt's Buzz: Toronto Review

Burt's Buzz - H 2013
Courtesy of TIFF
A quirky subject makes for a diverting if lightweight doc.

Burt Shavitz, co-founder and mascot of Burt's Bees, turns out to be quite a character.

TORONTO — Having chronicled the sex lives of insects with Isabella Rossellini in her Green Porno series, Jody Shapiro turns to beekeeping in Burt's Buzz, a portrait of the bearded fellow whose face adorns a lip balm near you. Demonstrating the unlikely worldwide celebrity of Burt Shavitz, the film shows how a man who lives without electricity became the face of a huge corporation. Full of eccentric notes and a touch of melancholy, the doc may ride its subject's fame to a respectable showing in limited theatrical bookings before VOD.

Those who don't know his story already may at first assume that Shavitz -- always attended by a handler at his hoarder-ish home, where he's barely able to pack an overnight bag -- is a Howard Hughes type who built his business to a point where he can afford to indulge his peculiarities. In fact, he hasn't owned the business for many years. After starting it with girlfriend Roxanne Quimby decades ago, he (as Shavitz tells it) was strong-armed into giving up his stake when Quimby learned he was sleeping around.

PHOTOS: The Scene at the Toronto Film Festival 2013

These days, his is little more than a mascot, traveling the globe for personal appearances, photo shoots and the like, not quite enjoying the travel or human contact (he has been emotionally unavailable all his life, acquaintances say) but enduring it for the sake of his quiet existence back in Maine. "A good day," he says, "is when no one shows up, and you don't have to go anywhere."

The movie never explores certain ironies inherent in this life, like the fact that Burt, long-bearded and nearly Luddite, is promoted as the embodiment of a "simple life" ideal by a corporation that sells hundreds of different products for personal hygiene. A quick look at the man and you'd guess he only requires three or four.

But taking corporate hypocrisy as a given, the film offers some diverting background on the man, who turns out to have been a talented photographer in his youth. Street photography in New York City was going well when he up and left, living "like a high-class hobo" upstate until he decided to use the beekeeping gear someone had given him. He eked by selling honey, kept the wax not knowing what he'd do with it and only started making other products when Roxanne came on the scene. The rest is history -- or at least fodder for a CNBC How I Made My Millions program on Quimby that is excerpted here.

Shavitz's brother and Quimby's son are the most revealing interviewees (Roxanne doesn't appear), but only inasmuch as they can share what it's like to spend time with the man. As for what makes him tick, they haven't got a clue.

Production Company: Everyday Pictures

Director-Producers: Jody Shapiro

Executive producers: Jean Du Toit, Phyllis Laing, Isabella Rossellini

Director of photography: Brian Jackson

Music: Howie Beck

Editor: Stacey Foster

No rating, 88 minutes