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I'm a Lenny Bruce fan. I know about Lenny Bruce, and I know about 'The
Lenny Bruce Performance Film'. I know the circumstances under which the
film was made, and the circumstances of Lenny's life and career at that
time. Consequently, my expectations for this performance were low.
But from the very start... he's good. Not brilliant... but good. Unfortunately, good is such a come-down for Lenny Bruce. And the performance is not helped by the way it is filmed. Lenny is never seen in full figure, which tends to be the best way to show stand-up. The dim lighting was also as strong as Lenny's eyes could stand.
He looks rather chubbier than in his prime, and the trademark sharp suit has been replaced with looser clothes to hide his bulkier body. But THIS IS Lenny Bruce performing on film, and it is because so little of this exists, this this film has the fascination it does.
Lenny is working with a document in hand - a transcript of one of his prosecutions - and the bulk of his performance revolves around what this contains... How what he has said and done in nightclubs was misrepresented by the legal system of America.
And this main section of his performance works remarkably well. He knows the points he wants to make, he easily find the sections of the transcript he needs, his vocal technique is still very much in evidence, and he is FUNNY.
But very soon, we see what is lacking in this Lenny Bruce. The incisive mind may still be there, but the playfulness is gone. While discussing the law, he talks about mime artists losing their "freedom of speech". What an opportunity! He misses what could have been one of the best laughs of the night.
But even this adequate performance can't be sustained. The end is heart breaking. An obligation of this performance was that Lenny reproduce some of the classic routines of just a few years earlier... and suddenly he tries.
Very sad. He can't do it. He can't reproduce his original passion or delivery of those bits. Maybe he can't remember. One routine lasts a few seconds, before he tries another. Important lines we know should be there are missing. Lenny is clearly in trouble.
It is like watching one of those "peace officers" he earlier criticizes for hopelessly trying to portray Lenny Bruce the performer in court. Without the real Lenny Bruce speaking, these famous routines quietly die a death.
Eventually the performance dwindles to a close. Lenny goes to a side door, and improvises some lines to passers-by. We can't really hear what he is saying, and it seems embarrassing to try. After a minute or so, the door allows his escape.
This was Lenny's next to last nightclub performance. Within a year he will be dead.
Lenny Bruce was undoubtly the greatest comedian of all time. He was the first to speak about racism, drugs, sex, religion and other societal subjects on stage. He was part of that generation with Sahl, Kerouac and Ginsberg which had seen the horrors of the war and which according to Lenny, couldn't understand how Blacks were asked to die for their country while not being allowed to use the bathroom in some states. Lenny wondered how could politicians and religious figures fight against "sexual obscenity" while encouraging soldiers to relieve their war efforts in French Brothels. As is typical in Jewish Humor, Lenny Bruce comes up with more questions than answers and defies ignorance and servile attitude. The Performance Film was filmed in San Francisco and is one of the last live shows by Lenny, who died of an overdose a year later. Lenny appears sad and tired in the movie, due to the judiciary and police harassments. Yet, you'll be able to see some of his greatest bits, punctuated by a long farewell to one of his last stages.
It was heartening to hear-about Lenny Bruce's posthumous-acquittal in
2002, but considering that our rights to free-speech are again
directly-imperiled just makes this documentary of circa-1965 Lenny so
chilling. Watching this documentary is akin to a snuff-film: you are
watching the human-toll inflicted by Police and District Attorneys on a
man who was likely the most important public, social-observer of his
time. It's true, one can still see moments of Lenny's former-brilliance
of only 3-4 years earlier in this performance, but it is dimmed. This
document exists if only to instill in young-people, the outrage of what
was committed on this great man. It is not entertainment, it is
This is what makes this--the one full-concert on-film--so disappointing. Not only is it shot-poorly, but copyright-owners have never done anything to locate better-prints; and like all other Lenny-material out there, no attempts at restoration or preservation seem to have been made. I know there is a dearth of Lenny-footage out there, but until the most-recent documentary, "Swear to Tell the Truth", all we have seen is recycled- footage. Archives need to open their doors to make these materials widely-available, this is our history, people.
So, since the early-70s, all we have had is this muddy-gem and "Lenny Bruce Without Tears." Bob Fosse's "Lenny" has some great-moments, and surely captures some aspects of Lenny Bruce, but isn't very probing about what made the comedian so daring for his time. I urge anyone out there who has footage of Lenny Bruce to put make it available to the public, because surely, there is much more to be seen. From Playboy's TV-show appearances that have only been shown in fragments, to press-conferences, and even newsreel-footage of shows, it's out there. It's time to re-examine this man's life in minute-detail, and researchers and fans-alike deserve access to more primary-materials. The recent "Let the Buyer Beware" box-set was an excellent-start.
I remember watching Fosse's biopic, Lenny, and seeing Hoffman's portrayal of the performance documented on this video, and thinking, how sad, that he went from such brilliance to such self-indulgent, self-serving self-defense. I didn't realize until I started watching the video that this was a recording of THAT performance, and it was interesting to watch from that historical perspective. But taken by itself it's more sad than funny. A great comedian, orator, commentator, oh, hell, just the great Lenny reduced to stumbling through court transcripts and embarrassingly trying to remember bits that he did years before. It's disjointed and often makes little sense; ironically, exactly the charges he levels at the "peace officer" assigned to "recreate" his act for the court and the transcripts made from an inaudible recording of one of his shows. Rent this one for a sense of perspective...as an example of Bruce's work, his art, it's a poor specimen, and will have you alternately feeling sorry for him and annoyed by him more than it will make you laugh or think; and those were the two things that, in his prime, Lenny made us do best.
This is a great chance to see Lenny performing during his last days. Not as funny or as snappy as his earlier performances, his intensity comes through loud and clear. Filmed in a small intimate club, you get the feeling of what it was like to see him live on stage. The included animated short, "Thank You, Masked Man," is a hilarious take on a popular Bruce stage routine.
What a painful film to watch. This was my first exposure -- I seem to recall that there was a film some years ago when I was younger, about Lenny Bruce, and this was not it. It was clear that his edge was gone -- he didn't pick it up until the very end of the performance. But altogether, it seems to prove that the man was an honest man, a performance artist, not a sleaze.
This is it. The only full blown performance film that Lenny gave his "thumbs up" to before his tragic death in 1966 of a Morphine overdose (and not Heroin as most suspected),at the age of 40 (he would have turned 41,if he had lived until October of that year). What we have here is Lenny,filmed at one of the last night club appearances before his cabaret card was revoked,and he was barred from performing at any venue that sold alcohol,at least in the legal sense (he would perform at college campuses,an appearance at the Fillmore West,with of all unexpected opening acts,Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention, and a few secret club appearances prior to his death). See Lenny as he waxes philosophical about his various drug and obscenity arrests,as well as taking some well intended pot shots at religion,politics,etc. Probably not as bitingly funny as some of his spoken word comedy records for Fantasy,but still worth a look. The film's photography is about the only really minor flaw (the camera seems to be one fixed camera that doesn't move about much---I'm guessing it may have been shot on crude early video,as there doesn't seem to be any edits). As this film is somewhat short,it's usually shown with Bruce's short animated film 'Thank You Masked Man'. Not rated,but contains salty language & sexually charged material that most folk probably wouldn't want junior to hear.
Lenny Bruce was probably the single most important figure in post-war stand-up comedy, but you'd never guess it from The Lenny Bruce Performance Film, which showcases him at his doped-up self-indulgent worst. Shot in San Francisco in 1965 but released in 1967 a year after his death, this was his penultimate performance before his fatal overdose, and the damage that years of litigation, drugs and obscenity busts had done to his once razor-sharp mind is all-too obvious. By this point Bruce had stopped doing his act and was simply looking to put forward the case for the defence, quite literally much of the one-hour set is simply Bruce picking through the court record of his latest obscenity bust and telling his version of events. There are still sporadic moments of genius, but they're short-lived and unfocused. Where once he triumphed with stream of consciousness, this is almost stream of unconsciousness at times as he gets sidetracked, throws in a couple of half-hearted renditions of classic routines like Father Flotsky's Triumph and sporadically loses his place. In a horrible irony, it's in moments like these that, as others here have noted, he sounds like nothing so much as a bad, half-forgotten impersonation of Lenny Bruce, like one of the 'peace officers' doing his act badly in front of a judge that he spends so much of this performance bitterly complaining about. As such, it's more for the fans who can put it into perspective rather than a particularly good introduction to his work.
Seeing a complete performance from Lenny Bruce is like watching some
Jazz musicians all in one form playing at the peak point at that same
period in the 60s. Pretty soon all the fire that was keeping everything
going would either fade away or get re-directed elsewhere. Lenny Bruce
is part of the former, and this show that is likely the last time Bruce
was at least totally coherent on stage, even in the similar form of
Jazz. Like that, especially in seeing how he talks in a full one-hour
show (as opposed to the bits I've seen on TV or occasionally heard on
audio recordings), he goes off on tangents, little side-bars that
almost might seem like they're going to no point or something random,
but it's all in a structure. This structure that Bruce works in helps
likely from keeping him on a loose track for his thoughts to go around.
Here and there he does get off point, and a couple of stumbles reminds
one of how he wasn't really in his full power of linguistic energy and
Yet I wouldn't have wanted to miss a minute of what Bruce had to say on stage, even as he would pop into doing full vocal (if not really physical as his face only shows so much mugging) forms of the people he was referencing. This is possibly the kind of talk and dialog with an audience that might have influenced Richard Pryor. You never really feel like the guy is doing full-on 'bits', not that he doesn't do them but they're not obvious. It's more like if a person might be listening to the other at a bar or over a coffee, it's about as natural as anything. Hence the structure of Bruce's court proceedings- the rougher ones as frank as possible following his only recently over-turned conviction in 64- is always of interest. It's peppered with him sometimes doing the bits that are referred to in the court papers, and through this Bruce doesn't just go off into long-winded rants about the injustices done to him. If anything he approaches it the best way by putting some more jabs into the rot that came out of the 'issues' presented at his trial.
But the special isn't only that, and in the last twenty minutes of the show the structure then kind of goes seamlessly into other bits more in tune with people in neighborhoods dealing with things, a little sex, some race, class, etc. There's even a very funny throwback to one of his earlier bits involving the word 'come' and its connotations. In fact, it's hard not to laugh through many parts of the one-hour/one camera shot show, as so much ends up coming through in the unusual flow of Bruce's dialog with the crowd (and with himself in a way) that when the punch-lines come they do work. If it's less than a great show, it's probably due to Bruce's own inhibitions perhaps, as the wear and tear of what had been going on shows as true as much of what he speaks out with. I would take a show like this, however, than more than half of the stand-up comedy on TV today- this is a guy, sometimes obsessively and in a tangent-like fashion, trying to level with those he's talking to.
this is a fascinating and poignant gem which should be treasured by any film collector. filmed in grainy black & white with one camera at a san francisco venue with the great lenny bruce performing live in what was tragically to be one of his last appearrances. watching a movie like this just shows how invaluable filmed documents of sadly lost talents really are. film maker johnny magnusson, best known for his work on 'sesame street' is to be commended for giving us a rare glimpse of lenny as folks may fondly remember him. the added 'thank you mask man' cartoon shorts terrific too!
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