That bearded, engineer’s-capped face on the label of Burt’s Bees products — piled high, right now, at a drugstore near you — looks right out of Central Casting; conveying a sort of rugged-individual, anti-glamour, back-to-the-land image that’s an unlikely but successful match for a line of natural skin-care products. But that unsmilingly serene face is no model. It’s Burt Shavitz, a reclusive Maine beekeeper who in the 1980s joined up with single mom Roxanne Quimby to make and sell candles from his beeswax. Not so many years later, Burt’s Bees became a multimillion dollar international purveyor of lip balm, cuticle butter and the like — and, before too long, Shavitz found himself shut out of the company he co-founded, though his face remained on the labels.
That’s the story told in “Burt’s Buzz,” a meandering documentary about Shavitz. Now in his late 70s, he gazes at the camera with little curiosity as an off-screen questioner tries to coax out his story. We watch as Shavitz wanders his property in upstate Maine, where he lives in a modest, cluttered house with his beloved dog (and, out back, 26 hives of bees). He chops his own wood, lives without hot running water and scoffs at the idea of television. (“There is no need of it,” he says dismissively.) And, in contrast, we watch him on a promotional tour of Taiwan, where he’s greeted at the airport like a rock star. Though no longer officially part of the company, he’s paid to make public appearances on its behalf, which he does with a weary patience.
Shavitz is undoubtedly an intriguing fellow, but “Burt’s Buzz” never quite finds what makes him tick. You wish there were more about his split from the company, for which he clearly still holds much bitterness. (Quimby doesn’t speak, except in excerpts from a TV interview.) Ultimately, the film is a character without enough of a story, leaving you with more questions than answers.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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