There’s a little bit of a funhouse mirror element to “Burt’s Buzz,” a film that certainly doesn’t skimp on the fun part. A documentary about Burt Shavitz, the founder of the massively successful Burt’s Bees line of organic skin and hair care products, Jody Shapiro’s portrait of the eccentric entrepreneur who, with his unruly beard and modest engineer’s cap has had his image adorning every tube of his company’s lip balm, further adds to the mythmaking around him. Yet in not shying away from the inherent irony of a man whose prosperity in the free market has come from the exploitation of his hippie lifestyle, Shapiro has made a brilliant film about branding as much as a witty and well-made character study, observing Shavitz as both a singular persona and someone who has ultimately been trapped by what sets him apart.
Although Shapiro allows the few within Burt’s inner circle to ruminate on his existence as a reluctant icon, the filmmaker only needs to train his lens on Burt to find something fascinating. Starting out in Taiwan where the soft-spoken Burt is treated like a rock star after shuffling into the Taipei airport as part of an International promotional tour, the film pulls back to see the simple life Burt leads at home, with his assistant Trevor perhaps a little too eager to talk up Burt’s bonafides as a salt of the earth figure. Burt himself burnishes his cred by recalling how he once voluntarily slept in prisons as a young boy when he struck out on his own and gamely stands for the camera against the pickup truck he started his business out of, playing into the American Dream narrative that has helped Burt’s Bees goods fly off the shelves.
“My life’s been evolutionary rather than revolutionary,” he says, not out of modesty but because he sees it as truth, every word sounding sage since he uses so few.
Yet Burt’s reticence seems to be a product of something besides a desire to be economical in all aspects of his life and as the film wears on, Shapiro does a masterful job of revealing why that is, beginning with a question about Roxanne, a woman whom the mere mention of her name gives Burt pause. For those unfamiliar with Burt’s story, it’s best to simply watch the film to learn who she is, but while the film is slightly weakened by her absence and the choice to have her son to speak for her, save for an appearance in an appropriately garish CNBC special, the way Shapiro shows that Burt’s life is not necessarily what it seems at first is most fitting for such a wily subject. Even more impressive is how the film’s light and loose tone never wavers, despite getting past Burt’s surly façade to show the pitfalls of a person defined strictly by the brand he helped create who was never meant to toe the company line.
Burt may tell a Taiwanese reporter that there are no issues in his life, and from a personal standpoint, that may be quite true. But “Burt’s Buzz” raises a host of interesting ideas about our collective need for authenticity and the threat of homogenization that comes with success. Thankfully, Shapiro’s film finds a way to flourish without ever feeling ordinary, taking a page from its subject who despite extolling the virtues of a simple life leads one that’s satisfyingly complex and quite deserving of the big screen treatment.
“Burt’s Buzz” will be released in early 2014 by FilmBuff.