The Lenny Bruce Performance Film (John Magnuson / U.S., 1967):

Lenny Bruce at San Francisco’s Basin Street West Club in 1965, his penultimate gig. The stage is a seedy mix of grotto and dungeon, the spotlight is dim, the vantage point is from a front row table. "Dirty Lenny" comes on and promptly starts gnawing on the politics of obscenity that have left him puffy, bankrupt, and wobbly with paranoia. The "comedy of errors" of trials and dirty words, the search for "redeeming social co-ordinance," the mangling of comic bits for the illicit profanity in them. Old routines are resurrected, half-heartedly -- the Warner Bros. prison drama with Fitzgerald and Sabu, Mrs. Roosevelt’s tits, "How the Jew and the Negro Got into Show Business" all make piddling appearances to sparse laughter. Bruce’s real concern is his legal martyrdom, his props are the manuscript from his latest day in court and the unseen audience standing in for the jury. "In the Halls of Justice, the only justice is in the halls." Recording the controversial needler’s doleful final stage, John Magnuson’s depressing, invaluable document illustrates a performer’s shift from stand-up observation to philosophical obsession. Spent yet still burning, Bruce keeps the scratchy performance going and then vanishes into the nightclub’s darkness: The hipster jumpiness and the Yiddish-peppered, quicksilver vocal swings are still there, but the shtick now plays like snatches from Kafka’s A Hunger Artist. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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