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Jo Jo Dancer Your Life Is Calling (#110 of 2)

A Pryor Engagement: BAM Celebrates Richard Pryor

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A Pryor Engagement: BAM Celebrates Richard Pryor
A Pryor Engagement: BAM Celebrates Richard Pryor

The genius of Richard Pryor can be summed up by the last lines in Live on the Sunset Strip: Pryor tells a joke that made the rounds while he was hospitalized for his infamous fire accident. “I heard what you motherfuckers were saying about me,” he chastises. Striking a match and moving it around, he then asks “What’s this?” The answer: “Richard Pryor runnin’ down the street.” Here was a man making jokes about being burned over most of his body, and doing so while the wounds were still healing. Pryor’s stand-up was method acting applied to jokes: He brought his success and his failure to the table, mocking and deconstructing each to make us laugh and teach us a lesson. The regular Joe with the fearless, black mouth would, with reckless abandon, call bullshit on both you and himself. His tact filter was perpetually in the shop, never available when necessary, and that made Pryor a scary proposition. This persona seeped out of the corners of even the harshest onscreen restraints; Rich would always be “Rich,” the way Jack Nicholson would always be “Jack.” This is probably why, with rare exception, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with Richard Pryor. You can see 18 examples of what they did do at BAM’s “A Pryor Engagement” retrospective.

Summer of ‘86: Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling

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Summer of ‘86: <em>Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling</em>
Summer of ‘86: <em>Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling</em>

With its fractured narrative, complete with gimmicky spectral figure guiding us through the proceedings, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling is Richard Pryor’s All That Jazz. Playing like a greatest hits collection of Pryor’s stand-up routines, it begins with its titular character freebasing his way into a hospital burn unit, features him pulling a starter pistol on the Mafia, and shows him destroying his wife’s car when she threatens to leave him. Jo Jo Dancer’s profession mirrors Pryor’s own, as does his backstory: The film is shot in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor’s hometown and the location of the brothel where both he and Jo Jo Dancer grew up. Columbia Pictures wouldn’t grant Bob Fosse’s wish to play Jazz’s Joe Gideon, but they let Pryor play himself, or “himself” as it were, creating a meta experience before meta was popular.

Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling is far from a perfect film, with passages as awkward as its title. But it is far more ambitious than one would expect from Pryor, who made this his narrative feature film debut. After directing Richard Pryor: Here and Now, Pryor and his longtime comedy writer Mr. Paul Mooney teamed up with Rocco Urbisci to write a biographical film about a destructive stand-up comedian. Since Hollywood, with rare exception, gave Pryor the chance to play dramatic scenes of great pathos and emotion, his writers script him several well-executed moments where Pryor proves a much more subtly effective actor than one might envision. As director, Pryor makes typical newbie mistakes but is excellent when portraying something he knows well. Assisted by his DP John A. Alonzo, Pryor shoots a coke-fueled party with frenetic energy, visually propelling the narrative forward with minimal dialogue. Dancer’s first scene, with Pryor crawling around looking for freebase to smoke, reeks with desperation.