Lenny Bruce was probably the single most important figure in post-war standup comedy. When he was at his best, he could summon up a brilliant stream-of-conciousness routine seemingly out of nowhere: in some ways, his comedy was like a jam session at times, but one that could highlight the absurdities of, say, segregation or civil rights abuses and still make them funny. Sadly, 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 defense, 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 unfocussed. Where once he triumphed with stream of consciousness, this is almost stream of unconciousness 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 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.
1972 documentary Lenny Bruce Without Tears makes a much better introduction, even if archive footage of the man himself is at a premium. Included are some of his best routines, including his two appearances on the Steve Allen Show, an extract from his busted TV pilot and a horrifyingly depressing interview shortly before his death with Nat Hentoff when he's clearly stoned out of his skull, slurring his speech and generally acting like a truly pathetic burnt-out junkie that's just incredibly painful to watch and which leads all too naturally into footage of his dead body being photographed by the police. Mostly the gold is the audio extracts from his bits when his mind was still sharp, accompanied by snippets of stock footage from old movies and TV shows of varying relevance. Unfortunately, the film hasn't aged that well and leaves a lot of gaps, but it's still a good primer and does offer brief interviews with friends and supporters (Mort Sahl, Nat Hentoff, Kenneth Tynan, Malcolm Muggeridge), opponents (Jean Shepherd), his last lawyer and even the D.A. who prosecuted him, who admits he was too tied up in getting a result to see how pointless and unnecessary the case really was at the time.
While the Region 1 DVD of Lenny Bruce Without Tears is horribly out of synch throughout, thankfully this UK DVD release (which also includes the Performance Film, the cartoon Thank You Masked Man based on his irreverent Lone Ranger routine and a 46-minute BBC radio documentary) has no such problems. The picture quality is highly variable, but considering the rarity of the material and the reasonable price not enough to put you off purchasing the disc.