The Setting

“Now dig. Here it is 1964,” said Dustin Hoffman, playing Lenny Bruce, in 1974. In many cultural senses, we’re closer to 1974 today than 1974 was to 1964. The arguments for freedom of speech, which Bruce made on stage and in court until the end of his life, in 1966, seemed thoroughly won by 1974 — won in an ambient cultural sense if not won in every last public venue. So the glance back that director Bob Fosse takes in Lenny shows us, in some ways, the same image that we see to this day of the years prior to the late sixties.

Lenny isn’t sentimental about the “simpler times” of the fifties and early sixties that it portrays. But it is sentimental about how much easier it was to provoke just a decade or so before the making of the movie. It’s invigorating to have an issue to be riled up about, and that’s made much easier when there’s a straight-forward side to be on.

Bruce’s side was simple: that we should be able to talk about it. In the monologue that opens the movie, and the soundtrack, Bruce starts a riff with “Eleanor Roosevelt gave Lou Gehrig the clap.” He then rhetorically asks if it’s necessary to “go that low for a laugh,” to which he responds that if we could talk about things like the clap then we could deal with them. That seems clear enough, but here’s an example of free speech that’s gotten more, not less, complicated since 1964.

Dig. If President Kennedy would just go on television and say, “I’d like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet,” and if he’d just say “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger” to every nigger that he saw … ’til nigger didn’t mean anything anymore, then you’d never be able to make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger in school.

The question of who should be able to say nigger today, and whether anything is helped by being able to say it, brings along a complexity that was absent when Bruce was arrested for saying cocksucker. In certain ways, it’s very easy to long for a time when the only victory in sight was the one that allowed you to say any word at all.

The Songs

“Theme from Lenny”


The long, drawn-out strides of the theme song’s vibraphone are mesmerizing. The slow ponder they provide works as a beautiful counterpoint to the frantic monologues. It’s the sound of sentiment, of glancing back.

“Lament”


Most of the snappier jazz songs on the soundtrack are so weightlessly gleeful that they fizz out immediately. But “Lament” features a muted horn with such an irresistibly sinuous slink that it seems to be the very theme song of burlesque. The strip-tease scene that uses this song is a stunning example of director Bob Fosse’s adroit skill at adding art to sex. Valerie Perrine, playing a drawn-for-a-cartoon woman whose working name was “Hot Honey Harlowe,” holds a room in enthrallment through the heightened tension and selective revealings of Fosse’s dance routine.

“It Never Entered My Mind”


This Miles Davis-contributed song lulls us through languid piano arpeggios and soft smatterings of Davis’ trumpet. The song, and especially the scene it occurs in, beautifully evoke the sleepy end of a very late party, when speech has slurred and slowed and, finally, no one feels the need to fill every moment with conversation. The half-century-long period when you heard jazz at nearly any party, when the current mode of jazz was the sound, had already passed by 1974, though, like these other cultural shiftings, it hadn’t passed so long ago. Younger viewers at the time may have watched and thought, “Oh, there were passed-around drugs and alternating sexual pairings before rock?”