It was rather bittersweet to see a recent interview with the late great comedy legend Jerry Lewis who looked very uncomfortable in the presence of a reporter who was trying to do his level best to ask him questions, but it was clear that the talent himself was at the very of a life that was clearly so significant in terms of his contribution to comedy, which sadly ended in 2017.
Gregory Monro’s 2016 documentary Jerry Lewis – The Man Behind the Clown is now available on DVD (via Australian company Umbrella) and gives people a chance to get a sense of what his achievements were both in front of and behind the camera. Notably, Lewis was the pioneer of the first ever ‘Video Assist’ system which many top directors utilise today to aid their direction and performance. Thanks to Eddie Murphy’s 1996 remake of The Nutty Professor, directed by Tom Shadyac (and co-executive produced by Lewis), his legacy remained firmly intact, with a remake that was every bit as good as the original.
To younger readers who may not be familiar with the importance of his work, there was a time years ago - specifically on UK TV when channels were limited to three (two on BBC and one on ITV) - where the films would dominate school holiday and weekend schedules.
Told in linear format, this one-hour documentary chronicles Lewis’ life, from his early years when his father Danny worked the cabaret circuit, to his own evolution as a solo artist, eclipsing his father’s success rapidly - and then with his phenomenal collaboration with Dean Martin.
You can learn about a more in-depth reflection of this period of success chronicled in Lewis’ excellent memoir, Dean And Me - A Love Story, which tells of the whole back-story (and rumoured back-stabbing) that went on behind the scenes, a side-effect of being simply too successful at what you do if talent wins out.
The second half of the film focuses on the reverence that the French critical establishment and filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle had for him, compared to the indifference that the Hollywood system and executives felt, but Martin Scorsese speaks highly of him, notably thanks to his collaboration on the 1983 cult classic The King of Comedy.
In addition, the documentary also touches on the immense charity and humanitarian work Lewis continued throughout his life, personified through the many US Telethons in aid of Muscular Dystrophy, not unlike the ‘Children In Need’ autumn events in the UK.
On balance, Jerry Lewis - The Man Behind the Clown is a perfectly enjoyable watch, but one feels that there is so much more to Lewis, overwhelmingly when you consider some of the other classic cinematic comedies Lewis fronted like Who’s Minding The Store? (1963) and The Disorderly Orderly (1964). There is a sense of let-down here, as aside from the limited extras, it would have been great to have a lot more behind the scenes footage and interviews with stars who worked with him.
What does keep the interest are the still immensely funny archive clips showing Lewis at his best and that is well worth a purchase here.
JERRY LEWIS - THE MAN BEHIND THE CLOWN / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: GREGORY MONRO / STARRING: JERRY LEWIS, MARTIN SCORSESE, SEAN HAYES / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW