The story of acerbic 1960s comic Lenny Bruce, whose groundbreaking, no-holds-barred style and social commentary was often deemed by the Establishment as too obscene for the public.
"Please, don't take away my words."
Words come in all shapes and sizes. Some are rather simple. Some are rather big. And others… well, others can be a bit dirty. But at the end of the day, they're all just words, right? I mean, a few harmless letters strung together and spoken aloud couldn't possibly cause any real trouble, could they? And even if they did, how could someone take them away? How could someone take your words? In Bob Fosse's masterful 1974 biopic, 'Lenny,' we find out, bearing witness to the power of expression and the tragedy of censorship -- shining a smoky spotlight on one man armed only with his microphone and his voice.
Based on a true story, the film focuses on the life of comedian Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman) during the 1950s and 1960s. While his act gets progressively risqué, Lenny is forced to deal with strict censorship and starts to have some run-ins with the law who deem his material too "obscene." As his personal and professional life go through various ups and downs, he struggles to fight for his right to express himself -- but his growing obsession and drug addiction might prove to be even bigger dangers than the constant threat of arrest.
Shot in a slightly mixed chronology that weaves in documentary style interviews with Lenny's family and colleagues, the movie offers a fragmented look at the comedian's rise and fall. Bits of his future act are woven into segments that focus on his earlier career and personal drama, juxtaposing elements of his comedy with various events in his life. A large portion of the narrative also focuses on Lenny's relationship with his wife, Honey (Valerie Perrine), and their volatile coupling becomes one of the script's main emotional arcs.
But beyond traditional drama, the film really becomes an examination of artistic freedom, the nature of obscenity, and the heavy cost of obsession. As Lenny becomes increasingly determined to prove the merit of his comedy, he also becomes increasingly blinded by his pursuits, turning his once cutting-edge act into a dry recital of legal documents and paranoid ramblings. But as crazed as his rants become, his reasoning remains not only sound, but thoroughly justified, allowing Fosse to shine a light on the ugliness of censorship while highlighting the value of satire and its ability to reveal hypocrisy. This is a provocative film about provocation, but it rarely deals with empty vulgarity -- there's always a point behind every dirty joke, racial observation, and sexual remark. Even if that point is just to make you laugh.
Throughout Lenny's gradual decline and tragic course of self-destruction, Dustin Hoffman turns in a riveting performance. Though the actor and director clashed heavily behind-the-scenes, this backstage conflict hasn't detracted from the end results, and regardless of the circumstances, Fosse and Hoffman have managed to craft a compelling characterization. Charming yet occasionally detestable, this on-screen version of Lenny is a womanizing drug addict -- but one who still happens be a passionate artist with a good heart. In fact, he's not unlike Joe Gideon, the protagonist in Fosse's following feature, 'All That Jazz.' So, in other words, he's not unlike Fosse himself.
Just as he injects his own personality into the title character, Fosse also brings several evolving stylistic trademarks to the movie's visual aesthetic. Shot on stark black and white film stock, the high contrast, inky cinematography helps to reinforce the gritty, smoky, and sometimes hostile nightclub atmosphere that permeates throughout the runtime. Editing, in particular, also becomes a key component of the experience, and as mentioned earlier, the director employs a fragmented approach to the movie's rhythm. One early performance sequence features a faintly jazzy style, cutting from close-ups and wide shots of audience reactions in response to the show, creating a free-flowing mosaic of visual ambiance that perfectly complements the setting.
The infamous "threesome" scene is also of note, featuring a startling use of light, shadow, and silence to create a sensual and voyeuristic sequence that is both beautiful and uncomfortable. Sustained takes help to enhance the content as well, including a great moving shot that slowly drifts around a courtroom while listeners react to a recording of Lenny's act, and a truly devastating stationary shot in the third act that catches Lenny's heartbreaking self-destruction from afar -- as if the camera itself can't quite bear to get any closer or conversely risk looking away.
As he attempts to argue his case against censorship, Lenny repeatedly points out the harmless nature of his words. I mean, they are just words, after all. And yet Lenny's own desperate desire to hold on to each and every syllable only goes on to reinforce their great significance and power. Yes, they're only words… but sometimes that's all we have. And sometimes, that's all we need. Fosse's film cuts down to the heart of artistic expression and the importance of free speech, while also becoming a complicated character study on a fascinating man and a jazzy exercise in cinematic style. As the politically correct pitfalls of social media and Twitter bring on new forms of 21st century censorship, 'Lenny' continues to be just as relevant now as it was decades ago. And if you don't agree… well, you're probably just "full of blah."
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Twilight Time brings 'Lenny' to Blu-ray on a single BD-50 disc that comes housed in a keepcase. Like all of the company's releases, the disc is a limited edition with a run of 3,000 copies. An insert with an essay by Julie Kirgo is included as well.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Marked by spectacular black and white photography and only a few very minor qualms, 'Lenny' comes to Blu-ray with a very strong transfer.
The source print is in good shape, but there are a few sporadic specks and streaming lines, and some minor pulsing visible from time to time. A moderate to heavy layer of natural grain is also apparent throughout, giving the image an authentic filmic appearance. Overall detail is good, with great fine details in close-ups, but the intentionally smoky lighting in the various club settings does lead to a comparatively soft look in some scenes. Likewise, there are a few flat shots here and there as well. With that said, contrast is high with bright whites and inky blacks, though there are signs of minor compression in the shadowy portions of the image.
While not completely pristine, the film's inventive style comes through strongly, and the transfer is mostly free from troublesome digital artifacts.
The film is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 1.0 track along with optional English SDH subtitles. Modest yet fitting, this is a decent mix that appropriately emphasizes Lenny's words.
Speech is fairly clean, but can sound a tad muffled. Thankfully, all of Lenny Bruce's comedic observations and passionate tirades come through well. The overall track does have a relatively tiny and soft quality, however, with minimal club ambiance and comparatively flat dynamic range. Still, as modest as the mix can be from a technical perspective, the sound design can be rather engaging in subtle ways, including instances where the director makes great use of silence. Major pops crackles, and background hissing are thankfully absent.
'Lenny' isn't exactly immersive when it comes to audio, but the mono track highlights the film's dialogue well enough and features some interesting design choices.
Bob Fosse's 'Lenny' is a thought provoking examination of free speech and tragic personal demons, shining a smoky spotlight on the pitfalls of obsession and the hardships of censorship. Through its jazzy cinematic style, the director crafts a unique and powerful biopic, painting a lasting portrait that remains just as relevant today as it did decades ago. The video and audio quality are both good, highlighting the movie's interesting cinematography and sound design. Supplements are light, but the included commentary is worthwhile. This is a solid release for a fantastic film. Highly recommended.