Spike Lee's Jim Brown: All-American contains a heartbreaking moment where the legendary athlete recounts how buddy Richard Pryor tapped him to help run Pryor's Indigo production company in the early '80s. After years of prostituting his gifts in projects unworthy of his talent, Pryor finally had a chance to control his destiny. Instead of kowtowing to The Man, the brothers were doing it for themselves. And not just any brothers: two towering, larger-than-life, world-famous icons who embodied the promise and pathos of being young, black, and gifted in an American society still emerging from the lingering shadow of Jim Crow.
The enterprising Brown quickly lined up two plucky little films—The Color Purple and Purple Rain—that seemed like good projects for the company, which was fat with tens of millions of dollars in seed money from white capitalist oppressors. (He also presumably aspired to make films without "Purple" in the title.) But Pryor shot those ideas down so he could devote all of his time and energy to killing himself with cocaine, booze, self-hatred, and fire.
Like so much in Pryor's life, Indigo, the great black film company that wasn't, began with boundless promise and ended in bitterness, failure, and squandered potential. Actually, Squandered Potential would be a terrific title for a Richard Pryor biography. Contemplating Pryor's rich, complicated legacy, I'm reminded of the bit on The Simpsons where Homer chides Dean Martin for wasting his talent. An indignant Martin fires back that he made dozens of hit records and countless films. In what world does that qualify as a waste of talent?
How can a career filled with so much achievement qualify as a failure? The same question applies to the legendary, maddening careers of Pryor and Marlon Brando. They both accomplished so much, and yet they were capable of so much more.
In his 65 years, Pryor revolutionized stand-up comedy, inspired countless comedians, won five Grammys and an Emmy, co-wrote the story for Blazing Saddles, made three hit movies opposite Gene Wilder (Silver Streak; Stir Crazy; See No Evil, Hear No Evil), appeared in a string of box-office hits and/or cult classics (Wild In The Streets, The Mack, Lady Sings The Blues, Blue Collar), made some of the most popular, acclaimed performance films of all time, and was one of cinema's top-paid leading men. Yet his film career was characterized as much by wasted talent as achievement.
No film better symbolizes the compromises and cynical calculation that sabotaged a potentially great film career than 1982's The Toy, which cast the man behind such albums as Bicentennial Nigger and That Nigger's Crazy as a hapless dope who becomes the richly compensated plaything of Scotty Schwartz, the spoiled son of tycoon Jackie Gleason.
The symbolism was as queasy as it was unmistakable. The greatest truth-telling griot in American comedy was reduced to a sentient toy, a human jack-in-the-box to be rented, then discarded when it outlived its usefulness. Schwartz later appeared in arguably the single most depressing episode of E! True Hollywood Story. He's widely known as a kid actor turned porn star, but that description is just plain wrong. Schwartz was a porn actor, not a star. Calling him a star is an insult to the good names and impeccable reputations of legitimate porn stars like Juggsy Vavoom and Titsy McBigbosoms. Clint Howard acts in plenty of films. Nobody calls him a movie star. When not appearing in such films as The Wrong Snatch, New Wave Hookers 5, Scotty's X-Rated Adventure, and Dirty Bob's Xcellent Adventures 35 and 36 (which, it should be noted, pales in comparison to volumes 16-27) Schwartz persisted in trying to get a Toy sequel off the ground, in spite of minor obstacles like Gleason's death, Pryor's incapacitation due to multiple sclerosis, and Schwartz's own sad descent from adorable child actor to creepy secondary player in porn movies.
By making movies like The Toy, Pryor became complicit in his own exploitation. The raw edges and anguish of his stand-up comedy and dramatic performances were smoothed away for the benefit of a big mainstream audience.
Onstage, Pryor's painfully intimate, confessional comedy stung and bled. Onscreen, it was often reduced to lucrative shtick.
1986's Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling was supposed to change all that, and not just because Indigo Productions was finally making a movie with ambition and scope. Dancer was going to harness the full measure of Pryor's talent: the innovative stand-up comedy that doubled as a raw, cathartic therapy for audiences and performer alike, the dramatic actor of voluminous intensity and riveting emotional transparency, the autobiographical storytelling that transformed Pryor into a stand-up god. Instead, it was released to mixed-to-negative reviews and disappointing box-office. Pryor's days as a top box-office attraction were numbered, though that has as much to do with his multiple sclerosis as the paltry grosses of his last few vehicles.
Pryor has denied that Dancer was autobiographical, which is like Oasis claiming that they've never even heard of The Beatles, let alone been influenced by them. Clearly, Jo Jo Dancer wasn't just about Pryor, it was about every painfully sensitive black man who ever grew up in a Midwestern whorehouse, worked at a Mafia-run nightclub against the wishes of a disapproving father, revolutionized stand-up with unflinching honesty, deftly employed profanity and exhilaratingly raw self-reflection, battled through multiple stormy marriages before ascending to the heights of superstardom, then nearly died after dousing himself in rum and setting himself on fire. Those experiences are fucking universal. Who hasn't experienced them all?
Why, just last week, I was so bummed over missing the season première of Mad Men that I poured rum all over my body and "accidentally" burned myself nearly to death while freebasing. It was rough going for a while, until I had an out-of-body experience, during which a wisecracking cabbie ghost who looked suspiciously like Ray Sharkey led me on a surreal journey through the lives of John Belushi and Richard Pryor. That was some weird shit. I really need to stop freebasing. And get TiVo. On a related note, I would like to preemptively denounce rumors that my forthcoming memoir, The Big Rewind, is somehow autobiographical just because it's written in the first person by someone with my name whose life mirrors my own in every conceivable way. Where do people get the idea that Dancer is somehow autobiographical? Oh right, from common sense and basic intuition.
Pryor's genius lay in making the personal universal. His squirmy vulnerability invited—no, demanded—empathy and compassion. He made people feel his pain, and register his hurt and confusion as their own. In its stellar early scenes, Dancer—which Pryor directed and co-wrote—embodies that rare, wonderful gift.
Dancer opens with an apparently reformed adult Pryor nervously calling up a drug dealer and inviting him to a party. Pryor maintains a strained cordiality throughout the call, but his eyes and jittery body language give him away. Though he professes to be straight, he's jonesing for cocaine. In a twisted bit of junkie logic, he's forcing himself to throw a party for someone he hates, solely as a pretext for being around a drug dealer, and by extension, his poisonous wares. He knows what's right, yet can't keep from doing wrong. We then plunge even deeper into junkie hell. Against Herbie Hancock's rubbery funk score, Pryor crawls around on his floor searching for little bits of leftover rock.
Pryor finds some leftover coke in a suit coat, digs through his fireplace for a makeshift pipe, and gives himself over to his demons completely. We then flash forward to Pryor being wheeled into a hospital, covered in life-threatening burns. His flesh is melted and raw, his survival doubtful. While his body hovers at death's door in a sterile hospital room, his spirit leaves its burnt prison and rages against the mess he's made of his life.
A ghostly Pryor then journeys back in time, in a framing device almost identical to that of Wired, another tragicomic exploration of a funnyman as brilliant as he was self-destructive. The out-of-body Pryor is trying to make sense of his life, to trace the steps leading to his current sad predicament. And even though he's a phantom, he can interact with the people in his past, including his younger selves. By understanding his past, Pryor hopes to change the present and future, to finally slip out of a grim cycle of drug abuse, failed relationships, and self-negation.
He begins with his childhood in an Ohio brothel, a place that's simultaneously welcoming and mysterious, secure and scary. It's the only world Pryor's young doppelgänger knows, so it doesn't seem strange that while he's proudly showing off his report card, a john is being kicked out for requesting a golden shower.
We then skip giddily forward in time. Pryor is now an earnest young man foolishly abandoning a promising career in the hog-guts industry to pursue his show-business dreams in the epicenter of show business: Cleveland. As Beyond The Sea illustrated, there's something innately ridiculous, unintentionally comic about a 45-year-old man playing a character decades younger than himself. But Pryor exudes such child-like vulnerability that he's shockingly convincing as a fragile young man. He also benefits from a cheap visual shorthand: no mustache = innocent, hungry young Pryor. Mustache = tormented, debauched, self-destructive adult Pryor.
Pryor moves to Cleveland to make it as a stand-up comedian, to a chorus of red lights and doors slammed in his face. He eventually ingratiates himself with a kindly stripper (Paula Kelly) who takes a liking to the baby-faced man-child, and pays him out of her own paycheck. In the film's first half, Pryor isn't just innocent; he's almost a burlesque of doe-eyed innocence, all good intentions and noble ambition.
The evocative nightclub scenes are amongst the film's best. Pryor recreates an insular black nightclub world lost to the ages, with its own unwritten rules, protocols, and traditions. Pryor takes a while to figure out The Way Things Are, to understand Kelly's pragmatic relationship with protective cop Michael Ironside and the club's mobbed-up owners. He initially bombs with standard jokes nervously told, but wins over his audience by impersonating a baby being born. It's a virtuoso bit of mime that, again, highlights the wounded child behind the debauched libertine. There was something pure about Pryor that made people want to protect him.
In her autobiography, Nina Simone recalls comforting Pryor during an early, crippling bout of stage fright, recalling that he "shook like he had malaria, he was so nervous. I couldn't bear to watch him shiver, so I put my arms around him there in the dark and rocked him like a baby until he calmed down. The next night was the same, and the next, and I rocked him each time."
In the performers at the nightclub, Pryor finds a loving surrogate family, a community of entertainers who honor each other with curious customs like "burying" a show by cheekily imitating each other's acts. In this case, Pryor performs a wonderfully deadpan impersonation of Kelly's signature striptease. Pryor is utterly fearless; there's nary a nod or a wink to indicate just how ridiculous it is for a grown man to strip down to a G-string and pasties in front of a leering, laughing crowd.
We then skip ahead to the '60s and Pryor's emergence as a raw, profane stand-up comic with a foxy white hippie girlfriend (Barbara Williams). At this point, the film falls victim to a widespread scourge I call Biopicitis. Biopicitis occurs when a biopic stops telling a specific human story about a real human being, and gives itself over to well-worn, one-size-fits-all show-biz clichés.
Since 1990, slavishly ripping off Goodfellas has been one of Biopicitis' most ubiquitous symptoms. Another common symptom is cheap, easy, elliptical montage sequences in place of character development. So it isn't encouraging that Pryor makes the leap from struggling stand-up comedian to wildly popular, hedonistic, truth-telling stand-up superstar over the course of a single montage set to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." The film never recovers, and its Biopicitis becomes ever more pronounced. Other symptoms of this nefarious disease include abrupt leaps in time, overacting, histrionic melodrama, brutally obvious period signifiers (often in the form of a montage set to Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and/or footage of frolicking hippies), an excess of drugged-up, sexed-up debauchery, and a complete aversion to subtlety and understatement.
Dancer staggers from low to low. Pryor destroys a lover's car in a jealous rage, and drunkenly cusses out film executives, booze bottle in hand. The storytelling grows pat and obvious. A flashback of Pryor's pint-sized younger self hugging his grandmother and telling her she'll live forever leads inevitably to a shot of a broken-hearted adult Pryor in front of her casket. When it should be building to a devastating climax, the film devolves into Death Drug-style histrionics. As Pryor sucks on his freebase pipe, he's visited by the ghostly images of his mother and father while his phantom out-of-body self (labeled "Alter Ego" in the credits) warns him, "All the plans you made are going up in smoke." He pours rum over his body while entering into a loving embrace with his out-of-body phantom self, before setting himself ablaze.
Pryor survives, but the film limps to a close. In his hotel bed, a barely alive Pryor murmurs "Help me" to Alter Ego, who re-enters his body, whereupon everything is perfect forever. Except that it's not. The film closes with a healthy, reformed Pryor—we can tell he's regained his innocence and lust for life, because his mustache of shame is gone—onstage delivering a mock-eulogy for himself in the gospel cadences of an old-time preacher. The closing scene should be a triumphant illustration of Pryor's gift for transforming personal pain into raw, cathartic art. Instead, it rings strangely hollow. As Roger Ebert points out in his otherwise positive review, the movie seems to be lacking a third act. Its happy ending feels abrupt, lazy, and unearned. It slaps a smiley face on a tragic story instead of plumbing its creator's shadowy depths.
Pryor famously alchemized painful truth into comedy. The film's limp third act performs a dispirited act of reverse alchemy, transforming truth into bullshit. Yet enough of his genius shines through to render Dancer, if not an outright success, then at least a gloriously alive mess of a movie, vital and confused and bursting with abundant moments of greatness as well as unrealized potential.
Failure, Fiasco, Secret Success, or Some Bullshit Hybrid Rating: Secret Fiascocess