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The Lenny Bruce Performance Film

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 21, 2015

This sketchy later-career document helps the viewer to understand how electrifying Bruce must have been when all the cylinders were firing, when things were going well. Here is a very bright, observant, perceptive man who has studied and worked and thought and absorbed. Having done so he goes out unpremeditatedly, without wires or nets, without notes and charts, and he improvises. Bruce was very jazz-inspired, they say, and he went on to organize and present his work in a manner quite consistent with that idiom. The jazz analogy is very apt, though at this late juncture Bruce’s flights and leaps and connections suggest a very late Coltrane kind of advanced jazz.

Or maybe it’s more like Charlie Parker, near the tragic end. You can really see that this guy is in trouble. He’s bright to the point of shining, but here he is also undisciplined, imbalanced and often bordering on incoherence. He is so upset, and so absorbed by the causes of his feelings, that craft seems to have gone out of the window. And craft still counts; Coltrane never stopped playing those scales, however outlandishly out-there the late recordings might have seemed. There’s a reason for this breakdown, of course. The historical record seems clear: Bruce was badgered and bullied, ultimately even brutalized. 1st amendment issues were and still are definitely relevant to this episode. The obscenity charges now seem quaint, if not tragic. And then, soon, he died.

So this mess of an ill-filmed performance is really heart-rending. But I ask myself.  When we let people’s martyrdoms reinforce our smugnesses and self-satisfactions, we can lose track of some important issues. For instance: there are fascists and there are book burners. Then there’s the alternative immorality of branding a nice person who feel offended by outlandish provocations as a fascist book burner. Not the same! Bruce is bright, and a few of these things are funny, and a lot of them are compelling. But the fact is that some of his material is just tough to justify.

We could go even further. The Lenny Bruce Performance Film doesn’t just give us the poignant prospect of a man on the brink of being worried to death. It isn’t just a man about to give his life for the cause of free speech. The things about which he speaks so freely are having their effect too, and it’s partly and even substantially a corrupting and murderous effect. Jesus condemned the Pharisees too, but he seemed even more deeply committed than that to the superior course of going forth to sin no more. Leaving for a just a moment the immeasurably profound importance of free speech, it actually appears, here, that Lenny Bruce gave his life for the sake of publicly wallowing in some of the other things that eventually killed him. Paradoxes, to say the least.