The first documentary on the life and work of comedian Lenny Bruce offers up lengthy TV clips of Bruce in his prime and a rare, and very sad, interview conducted by journalist Nat Hentoff. The fact that filmmaker Fred Baker leaves these segments relatively intact is invaluable for students
of classic comedy and collectors of Bruce's work; it also unfortunately means that the film doesn't cover very much ground, or offer many details about Bruce's life before the period in which he was consistently arrested on obscenity charges.
Baker takes a patchwork approach, stitching supplemental biographical material and commentary from various comedy/legal/literary experts in between the longer segments. He also includes some of Bruce's stronger onstage material (material which became available to fans on LPs released after the
comic's death). The way in which he spotlights these routines is to "visualize" them with footage from old movies and newsreels--a popular technique of the late 1960s and early '70s but one which hasn't worn well with the passage of the years. The footage proves distracting, and thus, some of
Bruce's most creative bits are undercut by "creative" editing. In addition, the commentary supplied by the various experts runs from the well-intended but pointless ruminations of Malcolm Muggeridge to the close-minded appraisal of humorist Jean Shepherd (who concludes that Bruce's humor could
lead to a new form of totalitarianism) to the sheer hyperbole of Kenneth Tynan (who proposes that Bruce's routines were "flights of fantasy ... unscalable skyscrapers of sheer wit and baroque invention that as far as I know have never had any rivals on the English-speaking stage").
Indeed, the key elements here are the four lengthy TV clips that Baker and his coresearcher Brenda Baker came up with: two vintage appearances Bruce made on "The Steve Allen Show," a monologue delivered on a TV pilot, and a 1962 interview for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation by Village Voice
columnist Nat Hentoff. The Allen appearances show Lenny at his most charming, equal parts bad-boy comedian and jive, head-bopping fan of old movies. His routines take the form of movie parodies: a cautionary antidrug film, a race-relations melodrama, a genie fantasy starring Sabu. He cuts loose on
the TV pilot (for a comedy-variety show that never materialized), performing an even lengthier (and "sicker") piece about the passengers on a crashing airliner. The Hentoff interview puts the lie to the film's title: anyone disposed towards Bruce will be greatly saddened by the sight of him in
1962, much the worse for wear after several obscenity and narcotics busts. He's clearly under the influence throughout--in fact, Hentoff revealed in the 1998 documentary LENNY BRUCE: SWEAR TO TELL THE TRUTH that Bruce had taken Benzedrine before the interview started. Bruce complains that "it's
chic to arrest me," gives a very touching explanation of why he performs (likening it to getting a parent's attention), and also critiques the Judeo-Christian perception of God as an ever-changing being who exists to answer requests. But he also attempts to amuse Hentoff and the TV cameramen with
physical shtick (not his strong suit, by far), dancing around in an oversized coat and taking a pratfall or two. The interview won't do much for those who are unfamiliar with the innovation and honesty present in Bruce's best stage work, but it does serve to illuminate the underside of his final
years, and also shows the severe toll the arrests were taking on his public behavior.
Baker attempts not to lionize Bruce overly; in his opening narration, he states that he was neither a visionary nor a revolutionary, "...he was just Lenny." WITHOUT TEARS provides some evidence of what made Bruce such a singular phenomena on stage and what turned him into a counterculture hero on
college campuses in the 1960s. The problem is that, despite the wealth of excellent material contained in the film, Baker's dated filmmaking techniques often reduce the film to the status of a quaint relic of a "groovier" era. Thus, the film will work better for those who are already familiar with
Bruce, or those who are doing research on the culture of the late 1950s and '60s. (Profanity.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1972
- Rating: NR
- Review: The first documentary on the life and work of comedian Lenny Bruce offers up lengthy TV clips of Bruce in his prime and a rare, and very sad, interview conducted by journalist Nat Hentoff. The fact that filmmaker Fred Baker leaves these segments relatively… (more)