Richard Pryor has done a lot of courageous things in his bizarre, brilliant, occasionally out-of-control career. But taking on the duties of director, producer, star and co-screenwriter of a highly autobiographical film must rank as one of Pryor’s gutsiest leaps.
The film is Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, which chronicles the life of a comedian from his boyhood in a bordello, through popularity and personal unhappiness, to a crucial injury in a drug-related fire. All those things are recognizable as real events from Pryor’s life.
The movie begins with the fire. Pryor lets you know right away he’s not just fooling around. After being wheeled into the emergency room, Jo Jo is lying on a hospital bed when his alter ego rises from his body; this alter ego takes us through Jo Jo’s life up to this point, to find out how he could have ended up in such a sorry state.
Little Jo Jo (E’Lon Cox) is raised around prostitutes. Later, his father (Scoey Mitchell) ridicules his aspirations toward show business, but Jo Jo strikes out on his own to a promised stand-up gig in Cleveland.
This sets off by far the most satisfying segment of the film: the young comic struggling with early routines in a divey nightclub, and learning a few showbiz rules. He owes his first job to a stripper named Satin Doll (Paula Kelly); one night, Jo Jo takes her place (and her wig and G-string) and grinds his way through the striptease—it’s a tour-de-force for Pryor.
The film never equals the atmosphere of these scenes. It skips across Jo Jo’s rising fame, but doesn’t really give a sense of his career. Instead, it concentrates on a couple of unhappy marriages (to Barbara Williams and Debbie Allen) and the escalating romance with drugs.
The film’s most shocking moment is saved for the end. The fire, it seems, was not entirely accidental; Jo Jo had doused himself with rum, in a desperate suicide attempt.
Like many details in semi-autobiographical films, this moment raises provocative questions. Is this what Pryor did, in his real-life accident? Or has he altered the event for dramatic purposes?
The queasiness raised by this question permeates the film; you often get the sense of looking directly into a man’s life. Pryor’s nakedness in the strip scene turns out to be both literal and figurative.
I wish all this honesty had produced a better film. Although Pryor is lucky in having John Alonzo as his cinematographer, and the film looks okay, it’s jumpily assembled. It feels as though it went through some serious cutting before release (it originally had a Christmas ’85 slot, but was pulled for tinkering); certainly it’s not long enough to do justice to its ambitious subject.
More fundamental than this, Jo Jo Dancer just seems out of focus. As funny as Pryor is in the movie—and there are plenty of funny bits—there’s simply no sense of perspective. Pryor may be so close to the material that he still hasn’t been able to digest it all. It’s a series of scenes, many of them intriguing, laid out end to end but never quite coming together in a meaningful way.
In fact, it resembles a convoluted stand-up comedy routine, mining the facts of life for material, which Pryor has been doing for a long time. It’s a shame he couldn’t transform his monologues into the triumph this movie might have been.
First published in the Herald, May 3, 1986
There are movies that would never have been made without a star having a particular moment of heat, and this is one of them. It is a disaster, but you can imagine an alternate-reality version of an autobiographical Pryor film that truly unleashes his genius.