In the long history of troubled and self-destructive comedians, few have been quite as troubled or as self-destructive as Richard Pryor (1940-2005), the subject of Marina Zenovich’s new feature doc. The film - a UK premiere at the Sheffield Doc Fest - has barely started when we hear about Pryor setting himself on fire after a booze and freebasing cocaine binge.
Pryor was a restless, provocative figure who tackled race in his routines in a
way that shocked and intrigued white audiences. Thanks to those audiences, he
became a superstar in the 1970s but was acutely uncomfortable with his own
status as their favourite. He would blithely rattle off the “N” word in his
monologues, delighting in the discomfort he provoked. His album, “That
N***ger’s Crazy” was number one on the R&B charts.
Zenovich (who has won plaudits for her previous documentaries about Roman Polanski) is never quite able to reveal what drove Pryor. “Sometimes to understand Richard, you have first to omit logic,” Pryor’s former writer David Banks tells the director. It’s not the most promising starting point for a film that hopes to explain his life and career.
The director includes interviews with his collaborators and admirers (Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Paul Schrader, Walter Mosley and The Reverend Jesse Jackson among them), who enthuse about his “laser-like wit” without coming close to explaining what motivated him.
Pryor seemingly lived his life in much the same way as he improvised his comedy, making it up as he went along. The documentary makes a strong case for his political awareness, revealing how, when he became a big TV and movie star, he demanded more black members on his crews. At the same time, Pryor relished the trappings of wealth and celebrity.
The structure of the doc is strangely lop-sided. Only well over half way into the film does Zenovich begin to address Pryor’s extraordinary background (he was brought up by his grandmother in a brothel.) She also skips over his love life - the multiple marriages and re-marriages.
The paradox about Pryor as a comedian is that he was utterly outrageous and yet always retained an everyman quality. Fans rooted for him however much he offended them because he was so likable. That made him angry and drove him to shock them more. It was a cycle that could only ever end badly.
Omit The Logic doesn’t ultimately do much to unravel the riddle of Pyror, a character who had (according to friends) “13 different personalities, nine you could deal with but them other 4 could be a motherf***ker!” It is, though, a fascinating glimpse at the career of a comedian whose influence still isn’t fully acknowledged.
(Richard Pryor: Omit The Logic screens at Sheffield Doc/Fest 14 and 15 June. sheffdocfest.com)
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