If you’re looking for irony, it’s hard to beat the story of Burt Shavitz.
Burt is the rugged individualist, tiny entrepreneur, and New England beekeeper whose face adorns tubes and jars of Burt’s Bees.
Yet when we meet Burt, he’s on his way halfway around the world to shill products under the eyes of his corporate handlers. It sounds like he doesn’t even have a stake in the company anymore — Burt’s Bees is owned by Clorox — he’s just a hired mascot, the little-man face of a giant corporation. Is he a sellout? A tool? A dupe?
Rather than label and judge, director Jody Shapiro talks to Burt and his friends to tell his story.
Burt comes across exactly like you’d imagine him, based on the woodcut illustration (first engraved by Tony Kulik). He’s an independent-minded Mainer who lives very simply.
He was born in Manhattan. He served in the army. When he was done, he became a street photographer, eventually shooting for Time and Life. He says he went upstate because he didn’t want to be trapped in New York City, never having left.
He started tending bee hives. He says when he had about 26 hives, he realized he never had to look for a job again, if he lived a low-key existence.
Brought to You by Clorox
Burt always saved his wax. He sold it at craft fairs and at the hardware store down the road. Tony Kulik made several stamps for various products. When he did Burt’s bust, it clicked.
The timing was right for Burt and his wife Roxanne. It was the rise of organic products. Roxanne had the idea that personal care products would yield a better markup. Eventually, Clorox bought Burt’s Bees for $900 million
Burt, his son, and the movie all attribute his meteoric rise to Roxanne’s acumen and ambition. Burt says they met when he picked her up hitchhiking. Burt’s Bees includes a clip from a fawning TV show (“How I Made My Millions”) featuring Roxanne telling her plucky, American story of wealth.
But those on camera paint Roxanne as a ruthless opportunist who strong-armed Burt out of the company that uses his name and face.
Burt’s Buzz implies, but doesn’t say, that we should feel sorry for Burt. Who knows? Maybe he has a lot of money socked away, but the cameras don’t record any outward signs of his wealth.
He’s still the man who’s happiest on a 400 square-foot camp site. Money isn’t likely to change that
Dogs over People
The story of Burt’s Buzz is bookended by his promotional trip to Taipei. When he reads his prepared statements he sounds unnatural — not even in a quirky, camera-shy, Bartles-and-Jaymes way, but more genuinely unaware of the patter of public speech.
Burt has a handler named Trevor. The two have more of a worn relationship than a warm relationship, but it looks like Burt is in good hands. At the hotel he is asked: “Do you need internet?”
“Like a hole in the head,” is his immediate response, in spite of the jet lag.
... but then it turns out he actually does need internet, so he can Skype his dog back in Maine.