The man whose rumpled cap and bearded, unsmiling face you may recognize from your lip balm gets an extended closeup in “Burt’s Buzz,” director Jody Shapiro’s affectionate tribute to Burt’s Bees icon Burt Shavitz. Made with the full cooperation of its grizzled subject — somewhat surprisingly, considering his visible discomfort with the spotlight and the corporate machinery he begrudgingly promotes — this thin but engaging portrait unwinds the story of how a hermitlike Maine beekeeper co-founded, and ultimately lost, a massive personal-care empire. Widespread product recognition should guarantee solid exposure for the FilmBuff pickup.
“Burt’s Buzz” is predicated, somewhat repetitively, on a central irony: that this quiet curmudgeon, known for leading a life of the utmost simplicity, somehow became the face of a billion-dollar company. Much of the film was shot in the quiet Maine backwoods where Shavitz lived for decades in a 400-square-foot converted turkey coop, sans electricity or running water. (Four years ago, he reluctantly moved into a bigger house with more amenities, though he still insists on heating water on a wood-burning stove.)
With only a golden retriever and an assistant, Trevor Folsom, for company, Shavitz is a man who disdains middle-class comforts, has no use for technology and enjoys his solitude. “A good day is when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere,” he drawls. He regards his celebrity status with a curious mixture of bewilderment, resentment and quiet acceptance, dutifully going on regular Burt’s Bees promotional tours in Taiwan, where he’s mobbed by screaming fans eager to see Burt in the flesh. There couldn’t be more of a contrast between Taipei, with its round-the-clock business meetings and four-star hotels, and Shavitz’s rustic Maine existence, lending the film some much-needed visual and rhythmic variation.
Archival photos fill in the details of Shavitz’s New York upbringing and his early career as a photojournalist in ’60s Manhattan, where his subjects included Malcolm X, Allen Ginsberg and President Kennedy. His brother, Carl, recalls Burt’s sudden, unexplained decision to leave New York for rural Maine, where he made a modest living keeping bees and selling honey out of his truck. It was there that Shavitz met single mother and struggling waitress Roxanne Quimby, who became his lover and business partner, their shared love of the outdoors making them a seemingly ideal fit. Resourceful and forward-looking, Quimby helped him expand a modest honey-potting operation into Burt’s Bees, a successful line of natural personal-care products including beeswax candles, shoe polish and, of course, lip balm.
In separate interviews with Shavitz and Lucas St. Clair, Quimby’s son (Quimby herself remains off-camera except for a few old TV appearances), the film recounts how the two co-founders parted ways in the ’90s, by which point the thriving company was headquartered in North Carolina. Their split — the result of wayward romantic passion on his part and financial calculation on hers — led Quimby to buy out Shavitz’s share of the company. She would later sell 80 percent of Burt’s Bees, collecting a staggering $177 million payday. Although Shavitz is still paid for his promotional appearances and the use of his likeness, the sting of his experience with Quimby seems to linger in “Burt’s Buzz,” though given his exceedingly frugal lifestyle, the loss of millions of dollars seems almost beside the point.
In the end, he remains a distant and mysterious figure, a genial enough camera subject who can be articulate when he wants to be, his on-the-surface simplicity belying a deeper complexity that Shapiro (“Green Porno,” “How to Start Your Own Country”) doesn’t entirely uncover. Other interviewees, including Folsom and Taiwanese Burt’s Bees distributor Cindy Lin, offer a few character insights and attempt to draw out some of his buried emotions, but he resists. While Shavitz’s droopy countenance and long pauses have their own eloquence, at a certain point the film doesn’t have much to do but marvel at his eccentricity, stressing again and again the oddity of this simple, nature-loving old man and how out of place his values seem when compared with the vast majority of 21st-century American life. It’s a pleasant enough mystery to ponder, but not always a rewarding one.
Brian Jackson’s picturesque lensing of Maine represents the standout element of a sharp tech package.