"Do I get paid for this?" says Mel Brooks at the end of Robert Trachtenberg's biographical documentary, "Mel Brooks: Make a Noise," premiering Monday as part of the PBS series "American Masters." "If this program was called 'Dutch Masters,' I'd have boxes of cigars. But I had to be foolish and settle for 'American Masters.'"
Writer, director, comedian, actor, producer, songwriter and drummer (because, as a drummer, you "made the most noise"), Brooks, who turns 87 this year, is in the midst of a long public moment. On June 6, Martin Scorsese will present him with the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award (to be broadcast June 15 on TNT and July 24 on TCM, along with his first two films, "The Producers" and "The Twelve Chairs"). The DVD/CD set "The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy," a motley array of Brooks' short films, TV works, guest shots and interviews, was released by Shout Factory late last year. In April, Judd Apatow interviewed Brooks and best friend and longtime intermittent collaborator Carl Reiner for a Comedy Central/Twitter-sponsored event at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills; in May, there were Paley events on both coasts related to the Tranchtenberg documentary. Undoubtedly I am leaving something out.
Seeing the musical "Anything Goes" on Broadway set him on a career path when he was 9 years old: "No factories for me. no driving a cab... I'm going to write things that are in my soul and in my heart, and I'm going to be in show business... and I was going to enjoy my life and have fun... and I did."After a brief stab at performing, Brooks moved behind the scenes, writing for Sid Caesar, on stage and then television, for the golden-age "Your Show of Shows," where, Brooks says here, the writing reflected what was "au courant in New York and what was au courant forever, the human condition." It was there that he met Carl Reiner; their 2,000-year-old man routine, which spawned hit records and many TV appearances in the 1960s, would make his famous in its own right.
An intellectual with a taste for big, broad laughs, Brooks' public persona (and to judge by "Make a Noise," his private one as well) mixed the silly and the sophisticated. His irreverence -- he would make jokes about Jesus on the one hand, and Hitler and the other -- was tonic in an age before that attitude was merely commonplace. Even the overt Jewishness of his humor felt somehow subversive. Says David Steinberg, "His point of view has to do with being as funny as he can make anything; that's a very liberating way to be -- it doesn't even occur to him that that's going to be offensive at some point."
He went on to co-create "Get Smart!" with Buck Henry. "The Producers" he envisioned as a book, rewrote as a play when told it had too much dialogue for a book, and rewrote as a film when told it had too many sets for a play. (Eventually, it did reach the stage, as a musical -- as "Young Frankenstein" did afterward -- which in turn became a movie.) In his early 40s, "The Producers" made him a director; the screenplay won him an Oscar. And a film career began.
Trachtenberg frames his documentary with images of a limousine racing Brooks to (and then away) from a sound stage for his interview. He includes microphone booms and image-doubling monitors in the shot and cuts from angle to angle, as if a simple talking head were an insult to Brooks' own cyclonic energy; and it is true that his subject is better observed in a medium shot that includes the expressive, symmetrical motions of his hands and his arms and an overall inability to sit still.
Many friends and collaborators chime in, including Reiner, Rob Reiner, Cloris Leachman, Barry Levinson, Nathan Lane and Joan Rivers. Film clips include Gene Wilder (from "The Producers," "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein") and the late Madeline Kahn, who, along with Tracy Ullman, speaks to Brooks' love of women and comfort around funny women. (It's time as well for a serious look back at Kahn's work.)
And there is, off course, the also-late Anne Bancroft, the partner in Brooks' cosmetically asymmetrical second marriage, and whose appearances here suggest that she was very much a kindred spirit and co-conspirator. "I was in love with him instantly," she says, "because he looked like my father, and he acted like my mother."
Brooks is smart, funny, reflective and seemingly candid. ("I'm giving you the truth now -- you ask question, you get the truth.") He is matter-of-fact, in an excitable way, about the ups and downs of his life, recalling a time when, out of work, between the Caesar years and "Get Smart!" he was in such distress that he was "jogging around New York and puking between parked cars." (Says Reiner: "He was so anxious he was actually suicidal at times.") If he understands the limits of his abilities ("I don't even know if I'm talented... but I've told so many people that I'm talented, so they believe it, and they tell me I'm talented"), they don't worry him much: "I've got to admit something," he says. "I don't really do anything for the audience ever. I do it for me, and most of the time the audience joins me."
They have even come around to "Spaceballs."Copyright © 2015, CT Now