For a guy in his mid-80s, Mel Brooks has been on quite a roll — featured in two HBO specials holding forth about his career, and now a loving American Masters documentary, “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise,” in advance of a DVD release. And why not? A raconteur of the first order, Brooks is also gifted with near-total recall, and a wit that hasn’t ebbed with the passage of time. In Robert Trachtenberg’s film, Brooks concedes every bad review is like “a knife through your heart.” In savoring this valentine, that organ and every other can rest easy.
Granted, Trachtenberg doesn’t break a lot of new ground, but that’s in part because Brooks has remained so vital and active in telling and retelling his own story. (In the recommended-viewing department, hunt down the first of his recent HBO specs, “Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett: Together Again.”)
Through extensive interviews with Brooks as well as Carl Reiner and other collaborators, Trachtenberg dutifully documents Brooks’ early life, his fascination with the musical theater, and those heady days writing for Sid Caesar on “Your Show of Shows.” The project then dives into Brooks’ films — with especially good stuff about “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles” — before the creative embers cooled, followed by his unlikely resurgence as a Broadway darling by transforming “The Producers” into a musical smash.
“I don’t really do anything for the audience, ever,” Brooks says of his movies, which is the opposite of his desire to entertain as he spins colorful yarns about his life and career.
“American Masters” is hardly known for dissenting voices, but it would be nice to hear from someone with whom Brooks wasn’t directly associated —
including (perish the thought) perhaps even one of those aforementioned critics, knives optional. Giving someone a well-deserved round of applause doesn’t automatically require wearing padded white gloves while doing it.
The most reflective moment, meanwhile, might actually belong to Reiner, who notes how Brooks occasionally laments the crude nature of modern comedy. As Reiner puts it, “You started it, don’t complain” — meaning the guy responsible for “Blazing Saddles’” campfire scene can’t really lament sliding standards, though it’s still sort of amusing watching him try.
Then again, that’s the beauty of Mel Brooks, nicely captured by Nathan Lane, who recalls the director’s great love, the late Anne Bancroft, saying
while they had issues like any other couple, every time he opened the door, she knew the party was about to begin.
It’s a touching memory in a sweet film about a guy whose own party seems happily undiminished. OK, so as documentaries go, it’s not the Inquisition. But another evening with Brooks should be more than enough to put a little springtime in any fan’s step.
“Mel Brooks: Make a Noise”
Docu; PBS, Mon. May 20, 9 p.m.
Produced by American Masters for Thirteen. Executive producer, Susan Lacy; series producer, Prudence Glass; supervising producer, Julie Sacks; producer, writer, director, Robert Trachtenberg; co-producer, Patricia Bischetti; editors, Asaki Ushio, Trachtenberg; music, Mel Brooks. Running time: 84 MIN.
With: Mel Brooks.