The documentary Burt’s Buzz opens in Taipei airport, where a septuagenarian beekeeper from Maine is greeted like a rock star by a crowd of screaming Taiwanese youth, including several women dressed in yellow-and-black bee outfits. It’s an amusingly weird scene. And, at first, this doc by Canadian producer and director Jody Shapiro just feels like a heartwarming portrait of an unlikely celebrity: Burt Shavitz is the man behind the iconic bearded face on the popular health-food-store cosmetics line Burt’s Bees. But slowly, very slowly – Shavitz ambles through life, and Shapiro takes his cues from his subject – Burt’s Buzz reveals a darker side to this story as the film uncovers a loner who dislikes his fame yet relies on it to make an income from a brand over which he has long since lost control.
Your first clue that all is not exactly as it seems occurs as Shavitz, a New York photojournalist who went back to the land in the 1960s, makes an appearance at Target. With a smiling publicist hovering at his elbow, he reads out a brief scripted message about Earth Day to assembled employees and then quickly steps away from the podium. Surely, the man who founded Burt’s Bees has more interesting things to say than this?
Of course, he does. In interviews with Shavitz and with the slick young “major-domo” who facilitates his back-to-basics life on his simple property in Maine, Shapiro gradually draws out Shavitz’s character and his tale.
He was selling his honey out of the back of a truck when he gave a ride to Burt’s Bees future co-founder, Roxanne Quimby. She was a wood-chopping, water-boiling single mother who shared his tough-minded approach to subsistence living, and when they got together he suggested that she try making candles with wax from his hives. Gradually, they built up a small line of crafts, cosmetics and food products labelled with charming woodcuts by a local artist, including the now-famous portrait of Shavitz with his big beard and his train engineer’s cap.
By all accounts, Quimby was more ambitious than Shavitz: She does not appear in this documentary, but Shapiro has resurrected an old TV interview in which she boasted about how she made her millions. Still, the couple moved the business to North Carolina together; Shavitz oversaw the retail side and hundreds of employees before he sold her his share in the early 1990s.
The company line alluded to in the doc is that Shavitz chose to return to the land (while the Burt’s Bees website just glosses over his departure). But in the interviews here, both Shavitz and Quimby’s adult son say there was an affair involved and that his departure was not voluntary. The son says the affair was with an employee; Shavitz says Quimby forced him out, threatening to have him sued for sexual harassment. The film’s revelation of his ouster is now making headlines in the United States; apparently Shavitz has departed from script.
Quimby sold 80 per cent of Burt’s Bees to an equity firm in 2003; and in 2007, Clorox bought the whole company for $900-million (U.S.), which must be why Shavitz can now return to the fold to make paid appearances as far away as Taiwan. In the doc, Shavitz appears to know he has been used, but does not bother much with what he has lost. He is a solitary figure who cares more for his land than the business, and more for his faithful dogs than unreliable people. He can’t be bothered to get the water heater fixed, so he just boils water on the wood stove; his older brother figures they are still in contact only because he never pushes himself on Shavitz.
Relying exclusively on interviews, either with Shavitz or people largely sympathetic to him, the doc leaves a lot of unanswered questions about the business and about how much Clorox is now managing life for a frail-looking Shavitz. But in its tight focus on the man, and its leisurely pace, the film creates an intriguing portrait of a figure caught between the Sixties and the present, and the self and the image. Shavitz is a rare bird, one that Clorox is apparently keeping in a gilded cage.