Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth Movie Review

Having proved his ability to handle writing and producing narrative film with Mother Night, Robert Weide and the crew of WhyADuck productions take on a much more difficult medium with Lenny Bruce: Swear to tell the Truth. The documentary, highly easy to do badly, can be just as emotional touching, just as engaging as the narrative film. The majority of them, obviously, are not. A very select few are able to touch you like the narrative film can, are able to pull you in and make you experience them.

I have seen probably fifty documentaries in my time. I have reviewed four of them. Only two of the documentaries I have ever seen have been able to engage me like Lenny Bruce: Swear to tell the Truth did.

Lenny Bruce: Swear to tell the Truth tells of social satirist and comedian Lenny Bruce, who, in the process of exercising his own personal demons, offended just about everyone and made a good half of us laugh during the 1960s. All right, I wasn't even alive in the 1960s, but he still was capable of making me laugh even after his death.

We've probably heard his name mentioned. We may even know a few of his bits.

Lenny's humor, as the documentary illustrates, was often marked towards the Catholic church. It took on issues that America simply did not want to talk about and stuck them right out in the open. He became a marked man, offending the wrong people and getting arrested in nearly every city in America for obscenity or drug charges. However, he stuck to his guns about opposing the hypocrisy in everyday life, something which we now admire in comedians such as John Leguizamo (from Freak: "Dad, why don't you just quit drinking? Because I'm not a quitter") and Chris Rock (from Bigger and Blacker: "Old black men didn't have to deal with that I can't get a cab shit. He was the cab."). It was a position that cost him his career, his fortune, and, eventually, his life.

Sparsely narrated by Robert De Niro and composed mostly of archival footage, you are given the feeling that you are not as much watching a documentary as watching a story unfold...the exact goal of good documentaries.

The film is short, bittersweet, and to the point. It is reminiscent of Julian Schnabel's first and only film, Basquiat, which paints a similar portrait of the lives of Andy Warhol and Jean Michael Basquiat, both pop artists who died tragically. It also reminds me personally of my friend Ronald G. Shafer's documentary Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon: "Keeping you Safe Beside Me", about the tragic death of poet Jane Kenyon.

The lesson to be learned from this would be simply that, occasionally, true life is better than fiction. The truth is better than what we concoct. And, if shown properly, it can bring you to the point of tears in a way all the more powerful because of its truth.

[Powerful documentary about America's legendary "obscene" comic. Provides excellent insight into the life of a man hounded by the law over his comedy act to the point of drug abuse and eventually death. Bruce was such a pioneer for the first amendment, you really have to lend the man a hand. Thanks to his vigilance, he was the last performer to be tried for obscenity in the U.S. An amazing guy and a good retelling of his life. -Ed.]


Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 1998


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