On some level, it’s probably fitting that the first documentary about groundbreaking hipster comedian Lenny Bruce, released less than 10 years after his death, is a low-budget enterprise shot on grungy black-and-white film. After all, Bruce spent much of his career playing smoky jazz clubs, even though he briefly enjoyed success on national television. In other words, if Lenny Bruce Without Tears were a stronger film, it might feel like just the right lo-fi tribute to a controversial funnyman who brought uncomfortable truths into his routines. Unfortunately, the fact that writer/producer/director Fred Baker largely constructs the film from second-hand footage makes Lenny Bruce Without Tears little more than a fawning clip show. Further, Baker’s only original interviews are with tangential figures who rehash familiar lore about Bruce as a tragic trailblazer. Plus, on some level, the movie feels somewhat exploitive and opportunistic—Baker’s real-life friendship with Bruce was used as a marketing angle, and Baker’s inconsequential narration repeatedly states that the filmmaker and his late subject were pals. If this half-assed doc is the best thing Baker could put together, one gets the impression that Baker and Bruce were more like passing acquaintances than true comrades.
Yet the documentary’s lack of substance isn’t its biggest flaw. Instead, what makes Lenny Bruce Without Tears genuinely awkward is Baker’s incomprehensible aesthetic choice to employ experimental-cinema montages beneath audio of Bruce’s recorded routines. For instance, one such montage collides such disassociated imagery as Boris Karloff mugging in an old horror movie, Lyndon Johnson giving a speech, a marching band in action, and a monkey typing (!), none of which has anything to do with what Bruce is saying on the soundtrack. Extended video clips of Bruce doing stand-up on The Steve Allen Show aren’t much more interesting; while the comedy bits themselves are worthwhile as entertainment and as history, Baker simply runs the clips start to finish, evincing a major absence of curatorial discretion. And in his most nonsensical flourish, Baker upends the whole hero-worship vibe of the doc by including shock-value footage and stills of Bruce’s naked corpse, captured shortly after the comedian died of a drug overdose. Not exactly the most respectful treatment of a “friend.”
Lenny Bruce Without Tears: FUNKY