Before Die Hard, before Pulp Fiction, before 12 Monkeys, there was The Return of Bruno. Before The Fifth Element, before Armageddon, before The Sixth Sense, there was The Return of Bruno. Before the head shave, before the box office poison, before the relentless slide into absolute apathy leavened only by his own knowledge of his finite time on Earth, there was The Return of Bruno. Not before Moonlighting though. After and concurrent with Moonlighting, there was The Return of Bruno. Deep inside Bruce Willis’ aching soul, there resides, forever and only, The Return of Bruno, a specter haunting his life, a ghost of what could have been and what will never be. Look deep enough into his dead eyes and you’ll see the VHS spindles turning over and over in his brain, in perpetuity, forever, at once a side-step of an origin story and a deeply sad, clearly passionate cry of a man who wants to badly to succeed at something he simply isn’t good at.
But what is The Return of Bruno, precisely? Trying to describe it is a futile task that barely scratches at just how unfathomably strange the whole thing is, but, well, you know bar rock? Did your uncle (by blood or concept) ever have a white guy blues band? Have you heard about the 80s? Then you’re in luck, dear reader, because you secretly know what it is without even having seen it. Released in 1987 on HBO, The Return of Bruno is a music mockumentary about Bruno Radolini (yeah, I know), a man so influential that without him, the Beatles, the Bee Gees, Kiss, Elton John, and many more would be shadows of their historic selves, if they’d even exist at all. Bruno Radolini is the ur-rocker, a being of pure rock and roll light so massively talented that Michael J Fox collects his ties. He gave Wolfman Jack his name. And he’s played by Bruce Willis (noted rock and roll singer?), mugging it up in a role so embarrassing and painful to watch that it’s a wonder they didn’t prematurely cancel Moonlighting in its wake. If this sounds relatively straightforward, be aware that it’s only straightforward in premise–it’s the execution that really stymies any attempts at understanding, existing like an artifact taken from a different reality where everything is just off enough to be unsettling.
The Return of Bruno is a puzzle box without a solution. It’s utterly impossible to tell what level each person involved is taking the whole experience on. Clearly, there’s jokes, but some of the jokes read more as broad statements, lacking a set-up or punch-line, hanging in the thick air (thick with Willis-sweat) waiting for a landing that never seems to come. Is Bruce Willis’ Woodstock mustache supposed to be funny? What about his ridiculous bowl-cut? Is it a joke that absolutely none of the songs even try and sound representational of the eras they were supposedly made in? Why aren’t any of the songs, well, funny? There’s a strange disconnect between what is ostensibly an overextended comedy sketch and the straight-faced butt-rock we’re forced to sample throughout (or, in the case of the special’s dreadful second half, be force-fed until we’re puking guitar solos), not unlike if the musical guest on SNL decided to just start playing their chart-topping hit during Weekend Update, apropos of nothing. This eldritch oddity is all exacerbated by the people involved: did Ringo Starr really have nothing better to do in 1987? Well I mean, probably not, but more to the point: doesn’t it cost a lot of money to have Ringo Starr in your strange, undesired, out of nowhere music-comedy vanity project?
An example of the “comedy stylings” involved: Bruno is shown as being the inspiration for psychedelic music, and the joke seems to be that the song is really bad and that his real influence was in taking massive amounts of LSD (and hey, credit where credit is due: not a bad joke, just delivered poorly). But then we cut to a talking head of Bruno’s stage manager, who says that people thought he was on lots of acid, but really he just likes sugar cubes and ate a lot of them before performing. There’s two punchlines to this joke: one, the stage manager is wrong, doesn’t know how LSD is consumed, and fell for the lie Bruno gave him about sugar cubes. Two, everyone else was wrong and misinterpreted Bruno’s strange habit of eating sugar cubes as being him taking drugs. The problem is, the way the scene with the manager is played, it’s utterly impossible to tell which of those punchlines we’re supposed to take. The joke exists in a quantum state, both punchlines true and false at the same time. Again: this is a movie that seems to exist by a logic that I cannot define, close enough to our own that its inability to match up one for one is all the more frustrating.
And then there’s Willis himself, a man who can–perhaps surprisingly–hold a tune, but only in the same way a show choir can hold a tune. Every expression beyond the notes is a put-on, a facsimile of emotion less convincing than Bruce Willis’ acting in every new-century Die Hard film. He’s a man stunningly, terrifyingly convinced of his own ability, even when all signs point the other way. This seems to be something he genuinely loves doing, which is why it’s even more frustrating and, in a way, sad that it’s almost unbearable to listen to. Perversely, the only actual “acting” he does–yelling at a bandmate–plays like terrible improv, all fumbling overlaps and silly flailing. It’s like the man set out to prove himself as a singer, and while doing so decided it was necessary to make us forget he’s actually, firing on all cylinders, a phenomenally charismatic actor. In The Return of Bruno, Bruce Willis is not just out of place, but he’s grotesquely unlikeable, bordering on detestable. I never hated Bruce Willis before, but at the end of The Return of Bruno I couldn’t stand to see his smug face, somehow hitting the uncanny valley without a CGI assist.
Honestly folks, when I originally set out to watch The Return of Bruno, my thought was to listen to all of Bruce Willis’ albums too, to get a full picture of Bruno as an artistic creation, as an entity separate and entwined with Bruce Willis himself. I wanted to see why Willis extended this character past its woeful origins, and why he got there in the first place. I couldn’t do it though- when Willis put on that fucking giant hat and strutted around the stage like an even worse version of Robin Williams’ go-to black stereotype character, I was out. I can take a lot of punishment from our cultural garbage, but swaggering white guy blues from a man affecting his approximation of what he thinks black people sound like while 80’s-suffocated production turns every instrument into a flat, over-compressed mess of gated drums and sub-Stevie Ray Vaughn 12-bar embarrassments is a bridge too far. So I’m left with just the film, and the current state of Willis’ apathetic self-parody. Bruno was the abyss, and Bruce gazed back, and now he is himself the abyss of fear, of laziness, of sullen lack of interest masquerading as artificial charisma. It’s all fun and games dredging up VHS rips of 80’s crap until you unearth something like this. Abandon all hope, ye who enter the world of Bruno.
Directed by James Yukich; written by Bruce V. DiMattia, Paul Flattery, and Kenny Solms; starring Bruce Willis, Michael J. Fox, Ringo Starr, and Dick Clark; 56 minutes.
The Return of Bruno is currently out of print, but is available in full on YouTube as of May 25th, 2016.