Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Remembering Gene Wilder’ on Netflix, a Warm Reminiscence of a Comedy Legend

Remembering Gene Wilder (now on Netflix) does exactly as advertised: remember things. More specifically, it remembers one of the funniest people of the last century, the guy who played Willy Wonka and Young Franken-STEEN and was the perfect on-screen comic partner for Richard Pryor. Wilder was one of those one-out-of-one talents, and veteran documentary filmmaker Ron Frank never ever stops pressing that button – but that’s as advertised, as the film is billed a “special tribute documentary,” not “an expose that airs out a beloved figure’s dirty laundry.” So let the retrospecticus begin!

The Gist: He was part naive doof, part raging volcano. He was unpredictable. He was sweet and mischievous. “He was this combination of innocence and danger,” one of his friends says (Mark McCormack, with whom our documentary subject would work on Will and Grace). You couldn’t really read him until he let rip, and that’s what made him so singularly funny. Every talking head in this documentary makes this assessment of Gene Wilder. But he wasn’t always Wilder – he was born Jerry Silberman, in Milwaukee, to a mother who was of such frail health, Gene-slash-Jerry (we’ll just call him Gene from now on) was instructed by his father to never, ever argue with her. “Try to make her laugh,” was the marching order Gene latched onto, and destiny took hold. He did some theater, got drafted, studied acting and somehow – the movie kinda shorthands this part – ends up being, in Gene’s own words, “miscast in Mother Courage and Her Children” on Broadway in 1963. How do we hear Gene’s own words narrating? No, he’s not speaking from beyond the grave. “Excerpts from audiobooks” is the incredibly boring answer. 

Anyhow. Gene was a supporting player beneath Anne Bancroft, an Oscar-winner who happened to be dating that one guy. You know. The guy with the arms and legs and head. Right: Mel F’ing Brooks. He wasn’t Mel F’ing Brooks yet, though, because he only had a few pages of something called Springtime for Hitler written, but he knew he wanted Gene to play the movie’s lead schmuck. Three years passed, during which Gene got a small role in Bonnie and Clyde and was ready to resign himself as being a feature-but-never-a-lead player in movies and plays, but Mel called him up and made The Producers – the end product of Springtime for Hitler, a title that probably would’ve been tough – a sleeper hit in 1967, landing Gene a supporting-actor Oscar nod, something this movie probably should’ve mentioned, I think. The rest is history.

History we’re about to get into, of course. The documentary cuts between personal biography stuff that I’ve already mentioned – although I didn’t mention that Gene’s were Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar and Jerry Lewis, so I should probably mention that now – and highlights from Gene’s storied career, because that way, it’s not too boring and linear. We skip some of the Gene movies we don’t remember well and go right to Willy Wonka, and get a delightful analysis of how he worked alongside director Mel Stuart to orchestrate the character’s unforgettable entrance, and then he turned that somersault and rolled right into everyone’s hearts. 

So much unforgettable stuff followed: Playing a man in love with a sheep in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, hanging upside-down in Blazing Saddles, co-creating Young Frankenstein with Brooks, writing and directing his own features (e.g. The World’s Greatest Lover), pairing up with Pryor for five movies (about three of which are mentioned here). He marries Gilda Radner (his third wife, not that the doc is counting), endures the tragedy of her cancer diagnosis and death. He sort of retires to marry Karen Webb, an expert on lip reading who worked as an advisor for his movie See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and starts painting and writing fiction. And for his life during the 2000s, the doc steps on the gas, skipping his battle with lymphoma to get to his eventual Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and a tender remembrance of his passing.

Photo: Everett Collection

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Remembering Gene isn’t of the indulgent (but admittedly entertaining) style of celeb biodocs like Sly or Pamela: A Love Story; neither is it the probing and insightful retrospective like Belushi. It’s somewhere between those two, with the sheen of a DVD bonus feature or old-school TV special.

Performance Worth Watching: Let’s just say we’re absolutely fine with the brief tangents the documentary takes when Mel Brooks tells stories – he’s another one-out-of-one who remarkably found another singular talent and made some of the funniest movies in cinema history. 

Memorable Dialogue: Gene on his showbiz name: “I just wanted to be wilder.”

Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: How many actors deserve their own feature-length documentaries? Very few – and arguably fewer than actually have been made – but there’s no debating Gene Wilder does. There’s a slight pall of disappointment surrounding Remembering Gene Wilder, though, as it feels too slight and sentimental at times, and more often glaringly incomplete and uninterested in biographical detail (should we have to consult Wikipedia to complete the portrait? Or should the documentary work around the stuff that’s already easily accessible elsewhere? The debate rages!). It also avoids saying anything remotely critical of Wilder, skipping over the so-so movies and the ex-wives whose names we wouldn’t recognize. It’s the type of documentary you’d expect to see at his memorial service, but longer.

But again, read the tagline: It’s a tribute, not a deep dive. It’s right there on the package. In its most delightful moments, the doc analyzes key scenes from his most beloved films with enough insight to tickle the cockles of fans and cineastes. A variety of talking heads contribute to those bits, and fill the space between: Brooks, Alan Alda, Harry Connick Jr., Pryor’s daughter Rain Pryor, Wilder’s cousin Rochelle Pierce and his widow Karen. We get plenty of Wilder’s commentary via archival TV interviews and the aforementioned voiceover. It’s a warm, heartfelt appreciation that trots out his greatest hits, all previously enshrined in comedy history, but always welcome viewing, queued up for us to reflect and reminisce and feel nostalgic about. If Remembering Gene Wilder does nothing beyond inspiring us to watch or rewatch Stir Crazy and Blazing Saddles and The Frisco Kid just to see Wilder and his cohorts in full flight, then it’s a success.

Our Call: As hagiographies go, Remembering Gene Wilder is at least thoughtful, and avoids being shameless or indulgent. Fans will appreciate the trip down memory lane. STREAM IT. 

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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