The Arty Semite

Friday Film: A Talking-Head Tribute to Lenny Bruce

By Michael Kaminer

  • Print
  • Share Share

Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce in ‘Lenny’ (1974). Courtesy Toronto Jewish Film Festival

Nearly 50 years after his landmark Carnegie Hall performance, and 44 years since his drug-related death, Lenny Bruce still has the power to shock. And as long he’s onscreen, it’s impossible to look away from Elan Gale’s Looking for Lenny, a new documentary whose North American premiere opens this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 7. But with an overdose of celebrity interviews, and a regrettable final third that makes tenuous connections to Don Imus to Michael Richards, the film feels more like a well-meaning term paper than a compelling portrait of a tortured genius — tortured, that is, by the establishment he mocked.

Some of the interviews do shed light on Bruce’s place in the pop pantheon. “If it wasn’t for Lenny Bruce, we wouldn’t have had Richard Pryor or George Carlin,” says comedian Rob Riggle. “And it’s usually the first guy through the breach who takes all the bullets.” Likewise, cultural agitator Paul Krassner reminds us that Bruce was an “activist, transforming horror into humor.” And Kitty Bruce, Lenny’s daughter, provides poignant memories of Bruce’s desperation toward the end of his life — and of her own unbearable grief at learning about his death.

Inexplicably, though, B-list director Troy Duffy — director of infamous megaflop “The Boondock Saints” — gets more camera time than anyone else, and talking heads like comic nuisance Bobby Slayton use their time onscreen to show off or self-analyze. As the film progresses, it makes unsuccessful — and wrongheaded — attempts to link Bruce’s First Amendment heroism to antics like Richards’s 2006 “n-word” incident and Imus’s “nappy-headed hos” episode. And while we learn a lot about what Jon Lovitz and Lisa Lampanelli think, we get zero insight into what shaped Bruce, and what kinds of life experiences might have birthed such a singular talent.

Still, the film is worth watching for the chance it offers to revisit one of the seminal Jewish troublemakers of our age, and to remind ourselves again of what fueled his righteous rage. “Lenny Bruce didn’t pave a path for comics,” says Robert Klein in the film. “He paved a path for people to criticize.”

The film does have a bonus for Forward readers, though. Halfway through the film, Bruce holds up a copy of the Yiddish Forverts and insists the headline reads, “A Star Is Born.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Troy Duffy, Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Robert Klein, Rob Riggle, Richard Pryor, Paul Krassner, Michael Richards, Michael Kaminer, Looking for Lenny, Lisa Lampanelli, Lenny Bruce, Kitty Bruce, Jon Lovitz, George Carlin, Elan Gale, Film, Don Imus, Documentaries, Bobby Slayton

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.