The central challenge of any documentary is to grant both information and insight, and that’s doubly true for documentaries on well-worn subjects.
Since Lenny Bruce is one of the most threadbare of all, at least in comedy, Looking for Lenny sets up a mighty challenge over the course of its brisk, hour-long running time. Training his lens on Bruce’s life and legacy, director Elan Gale risks the Hydra-headed wrath of cliché, repetition, fawning appraisals and surface-quality conclusions. Unfortunately, Looking for Lenny often trades in those without finding much of its subject at all.
There’s a hint of trouble in an opening sequence that thrusts overused footage of historical events at viewers, from World War II through the socio-political tumult of the 1960s. Are these the events that bookended Bruce’s life? Sure, but then there’s Don Imus calling black female basketball players “nappy-headed hos.” What’s the relevance? Viewers will find out later. Much later. And in excruciating detail.
All the furniture of a good documentary seems to be in place. Dozens of interviews with comedians both famous and not-so-famous intercut the clips of Bruce, and the talking heads span his heyday through the present. There’s Phyllis Diller, Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters and Mort Sahl, but there’s also Roseanne, Lewis Black, Robin Williams and an eloquent, impassioned Christopher Titus.
The film situates Bruce in the 1950s milieu of restrictive, apolitical comedy norms and tells (but infrequently shows) how and why Bruce grated against them – even when he was a new recruit to the national stage. Hugh Hefner and Steve Allen helped push him throughout his career, granting Bruce bigger audiences and, eventually, the experience to say the things that would land him in jail on trumped-up obscenity charges.
Gale employs sprightly music to keep things moving, with slow, familiar pans across blown-up photographs and footage from Bruce’s half-dozen TV appearances. There’s a brief flash of insight when Bruce’s daughter Kitty shows up (her story about hiding food under the bed during the dark days of Bruce’s career is affecting), as well as a few of Bruce’s surviving friends. But they mostly restate the obvious and add unnecessary punctuation to previous points.
Director Troy Duffy (The Boondock Saints) spits some worthy lines about comics being the first to attack taboo subjects, bringing depth with concrete examples. An audio sample of Bruce performing a lyrical, jazzy “To Is a Preposition, Come Is a Verb” handily refutes those who have criticized him for his lack of sophisticated, tongue-twisting bits that culminate in genuine laughs. And Titus brings a sharp honesty to his takedown of modern comics who try to imitate Bruce’s fizzy, bitter style without doing the hard work of being a stand up.
The most insightful moments of Looking for Lenny are the audio and video clips of Bruce himself. It’s easy to hear George Carlin and other acolytes in Bruce’s mid-to-late-period material. But in choosing to skip over Bruce’s upbringing and early life – or provide detailed dissection of his performing habits and personal context – the documentary misses the one target it might actually hit: a general-audience primer on Bruce’s significance outside of comedy.
Press materials claim the filmmakers attempted to bring present-day relevance to Bruce’s legacy by “comparing his use of language and the issues he addressed with the recent controversies surrounding Michael Richards and Don Imus.” That may be true, but the average viewer – with no access to this press release – is left to wonder why the documentary spends so much time on these controversies, especially when they ignore Bruce for minutes on end. If a good chunk of the movie doesn’t speak for itself, it’s time to cut it.
Bruce didn’t want to be a martyr. He wanted to be vindicated and go on performing, and on that note the documentary rings true. But his drug abuse and spiraling frustration and paranoia are either glazed over or apologized for, wallowing in familiar conspiracy theories and hackneyed criticisms of cops, corporations and general social repression. There’s even a Henry Rollins cameo.
It’s all relevant in various ways to Bruce’s legacy, but so are boatloads of other things that fail to offer new spins on old subjects. The conclusion of all this commentary? Little has changed since Bruce’s time, even though we like to think it has, and the bittersweet, posthumous pardon he received meant shit to him since he’s, you know, dead and all.
Looking for Lenny often uses a chainsaw when a nail file would do. Bruce’s trailblazing career and status as The Father of Modern Stand-Up is an endlessly fertile vein of free speech versus censorship, and dozens of books, documentaries and articles have done it better. It’s admirable that the filmmakers tried to bring Bruce into the present, but with only two main examples and not much lasting insight, Looking for Lenny gets lost on its way to the point.