Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth

Narrator: Robert De Niro.

Narrator: Robert De Niro.

Along and loving tribute 10 years in the making, “Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth” emotionally argues the performer’s place as the most innovative thinker to emerge from the standup comedy circuit. After detailing his transformation from shticky gag man of the ’40s to cultural gadfly of the early ’60s, pic focuses perhaps a bit too much on the ceaseless attempts to prosecute him for speaking his mind by using dirty little words. While it is a resoundingly tragic story, the film is far from somber thanks to generousinclusions of Bruce’s material, which sound as current today as anything in Chris Rock’s routine. After concluding its successful two-week run at Gotham’s Film Forum, pic should enjoy strong success on HBO before becoming a provocative, sought-after vid rental.

The Lenny Bruce shown here is a much less caustic and more vulnerable one than the one Dustin Hoffman brought to life in Bob Fosse’s 1974 “Lenny.” Effectively evoked through a well-stitched quilt of photos, interviews with friends and associates (Steve Allen, his ex-wife and former stripper Honey Bruce and jazz critic Nat Hentoff), unaired TV appearances and footage of his standup act, Bruce emerges as a depressed yet hyperactive mama’s boy, and one with a very strange mother.

One of the first female standup comedians, single mother Sally Marr fully supported her son’s attempt to push the envelope artistically. She and Lenny enjoyed going to burlesque shows together, and over the years they seemed more like drinking buddies than mother and son. Weide’s interview with her while she is having her hair done at a beauty salon on Long Island has the effect of a hypo of vitality.

Film essentially makes two arguments about Bruce’s life: that as a comedian, he was without parallel, and that constant police persecution is what ultimately killed him. The first position is much more interesting and persuasive than the second; he was, after all, an extremely self-destructive guy.

His transformation over the course of the film is startling: Weide dramatically captures Bruce’s deterioration through photos and films that show his once-bright peepers taking on weighty bags that, by the time of his death, have grown into Oreo-like circles.

One could take issue with the film’s infatuation with its subject, but Weide never claims to be crafting anything less then a love letter. At times, it feels as if the docu is painting Bruce as a First Amendment martyr, which seems to be off the point: The man he shows never wanted to be a crusader or symbol of rebellion.

While he effectively delineates how the cruder aspects of Bruce’s act developed in his years as an emcee at strip shows, Weide does not broach the much more interesting question of how this essentially self-educated man developed such a keen analytical mind.

Robert De Niro does a solid job supplying the v.o., though some may find his recognizable timbre and delivery distracting.

While some wistful sax and trumpet music effectively evokes both the period and Bruce’s melancholy, other song choices — “Theme From a Summer Place,” the Clash’s cover of “I Fought the Law” — seem a bit predictable.

Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth


  • Production: A Whyaduck production in association with HBO Documentary films. Produced, directed, written by Robert B. Weide. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins.
  • Crew: Editors , Geof Bartz, Weide. Reviewed at the Film Forum, N.Y., Oct. 30, 1998. Running time: 93 MIN.
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