The life and times of anarchic comedian Lenny Bruce a satirist and obsessed crusader who had the edge of a guillotine and broke every taboo of showbiz and polite society, freewheeling on race, sex, drugs and religion. He ridiculed presidents, popes, the police, psychiatrists, Broadway baritones and white collar drunks, with an irrepressible compulsion to confront reality and an ultimately self-destructive urge to offend everybody, especially those angry, alarmed and unamused authority figures wh
In the 'Genius or Madman' pantheon, they don't come more interesting and influential than the daring but tragic Lenny Bruce. Fosse's evocative film, adapted by Julian Barry from his play, commemorates Lenny as a champion of self-expression under the First Amendment, drawing heavily on authentic transcripts of his performances and court records from his numerous prosecutions across the country.
It's structured around dramatised interviews with Honey, his daughter, (powerfully played by voluptuous Valerie Perrine in her role of a lifetime), his mother and his agent, then intricately edited into a dramatic collage of incident until the discovery of Lenny's body, syringe in arm, on a bathroom floor.
Shot in smoky black and white, and suffused with period detail, Fosse's musical background comes to the fore during some of the extended nightclub routines, where the legendary choreographer stages the stand-up as if Bruce is a master jazz musician, which, in a way, he was.
However, what the film and Dustin Hoffman's Oscar-nominated performance as Lenny don't convey fully - and it's pretty crucial - is that Lenny Bruce was - and still is - awfully, outrageously funny. At least, he was as he evolved from humorous teller of 'bits' into a brilliant improvisational comic, taking flight off whatever he'd just read or seen. He enjoyed a historic triumph - also recorded - at Carnegie Hall in 1961. Then began the relentless string of prosecutions for obscenity and drugs possession, some of these dubious and transparently harassment, that bankrupted him and turned him into a justifiably paranoid, pitiable spectacle, ranting tediously on stage when club owners dared to book him.
Lenny Bruce died, broke and facing imprisonment, in 1966, two months after his last gig with Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention at San Franciscoís premiere rock venue, The Fillmore West. Nevertheless, his legacy endures. Even people unaware of Lenny Bruce, or oblivious that he moved the goalposts in comedy improv. and social satire, are laughing at comedy inspired by comedy inspired by him. He was hounded to death for saying things that are less rude, crude and lewd - and a lot more intelligent - than what passes now for prime time television.
The seismic impact of Bruce on culture is indeed attested to by the fact that only a few short years after his death, the entertainment exile was considered a suitable subject for a Hollywood biopic, with all the omissions and deletions that such a dubious honour entails. However, if Fosse's film fails to capture the man or his art completely, it remains a damn good place to start.