***/**** Image B Sound A Extras B-
directed by Susan Froemke
by Walter Chaw Sort of a cross between a documentary and a musical concert DVD but without much in the way of either in-depth information or audience response, Recording 'The Producers': A Musical Romp with Mel Brooks is a look at the recording sessions leading to the creation of the cast album for the smash Broadway show The Producers, which was, of course, based on Mel Brooks's classic film. Well composited by director Susan Froemke, the straight-to-DVD production veers from Brooks reacting to in-studio performances by Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, and company to a few rough patches that are overcome through coaching and a surprising degree of professionalism. Although I'm somewhat handicapped by not having seen the actual play, I was dutifully impressed by the prodigious talents of the stars (who knew that Ferris Bueller could croon?) and mostly charmed by the still-engaging personality of Brooks as the proud papa of the most-lauded play in Tony Award history (winning twelve).
Each song is introduced by a few anecdotes from Brooks, some interesting (the clarification of the role of a music supervisor explicated in layman's terms), some not (the obvious revelation that "We Can Do It" was meant to be a throwback to the "diva" moments of classic musicals). Unlike many a film of this type (and here I'm thinking unflatteringly of Gillian Grisman's Grateful Dawg), Recording 'The Producers' doesn't presume a built-in interest in the subject matter and musical style on the part of the viewer, choosing instead to undercut the songs with discrete commentary and, even better, providing background on and educating not only the show's "book," but also the process of nursing a concept all the way to opening curtain on the Great White Way. Though most of the tunes are enjoyable, select few, such as track 5's "Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop," are nigh unbearable and only interesting for the disturbing reminder that Mel Brooks continues to use the word "plotz" in his work. Without the occasional aside by Brooks, snippets of a segmented interview with stage director Susan Stroman, and footage from inside the mixing booth supplying reaction and quick explanation, there would be nothing saving the occasional stinkers from the dread "skip scene" button.
The highlight of the presentation comes in Broderick's dead-on impression of Marlon Brando between takes and during Cady Huffman's recording of "When You Got It, Flaunt It" (track 7). Easily the toughest of the recording sessions, it comes down to Huffman listening carefully as Brooks sounds out the proper burlesque of the word "stuff" in a faux-Swedish accent. Brief as it is, track 7 gives real insight into the collaborative process behind every good turn in any performance medium. The real joy of Recording 'The Producers', however, is the enthusiasm everyone brings to the recording sessions--a fervour born of the comfort and affection culled from a long and successful run with a competent director and a well-matched cast. It's fun for the neophyte, and probably indispensable for the fan. Now if I could just get to New York and see what all the fuss is about for myself...
Released by Sony Classics DVD after airing as part of PBS' "Great Performances", Recording 'The Producers' features a bonus featurette with more behind-the-scenes conversations among cast and crew. Broderick accidentally reveals that Brando, on the set of The Freshman, said, "You're doing Letterman? That's like putting fried eggs in your armpits, why would you do that?"--and he, Lane, and Stroman detail how they became involved with the project, the audition process, and their thoughts on the cinematic source material. Informative and engaging, I can only imagine how much I would have been edified by this information if only I had seen the musical. The extra doc is thirteen jam-packed minutes. Recording 'The Producers' itself was shot on digital video (the crisp image is full-frame, 1.33:1) and mastered in a crystalline Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. A 12-photo still gallery of stage shots rounds out the disc. Originally published: October 27, 2001.
85 minutes; Not Rated; 1.33:1; English DD 5.1, English LPCM Stereo; DVD-5; Region One; Sony