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Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling
Written by Richard Pryor, Rocco
Urbisci and Paul Mooney
Directed by Richard Pryor
At the USA Cinema 57
IN THE FIRST scene of Jo Jo Dancer, Richard Pryor, who is comedian Jo Jo Dancer, whom we know is in fact Richard Pryor, looks mortified. He stares in sheer horror at his multiple reflections in a three-way mirror. Perhaps, I thought, having just seen the credits roll across the screen, this is the megalomaniac horror of a man who produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in this self-indulgent movie.
But a minute later, as Pryor writhes and creeps across the floor of a room that looks like a Texes saloon after a brawl, the horror becomes real. He crawls around searching, not for anything in particular, but just searching, in that desperate way that junkies do, and it's painful to watch. The drug-addicted superstar cliche that we've seen three times in A Star Is Born, once in Lady Sings The Blues, once in Pink Floyd's The Wall, and who knows-how-many-times elsewhere is as touching and awful in Jo Jo Dancer's opening scene as it is anywhere else.
When Pryor emerges moments later with a bong and some presumably freebased cocaine, the audience knows only too well from the events of Pryor's own life what is about to happen. When we see him in the next scene being carried on a stretcher, looking like a bloody, beached alligator with an afro, we can fill in the blanks ourselves.
This could be, at first glance, a shocking, depressing and ultimately uplifting film. And to some degree it is. But Pryor proceeds to lose us the minute Jo Jo arrives at the hospital. Jo Jo's soul, in the form of a second and unclad Richard Pryor, emerges from his body and embarks on a journey through his past.
This 1940s Capraesque move has been pulled once too often to work in 1986. And Pryor-as-Dancer-as-Pryor's flashbacks and comatose delusions are too self-justifying and self-serving for anyone to believe them.
Pryor presents us with a film that says, "Sure, I messed up my life with coke and booze, but it's all because my mother was a prostitute, my father was a brute, we lived in a brothel, and the bullies down the block beat me up."
But with a little help from the Good Lord and his own wits, Pryor managed to escape from it all, although not entirely unscathed. Pryor excuses his own drunken stupors and coke-induced delirium as vital relief from comic pain. After all, Lenny Bruce and scores (pun intended) of others set the precedent.
ALL THIS IS fine, except that Pryor wants to play the victim of circumstances and earn more than a modicum of our sympathy without going all the way with it. He uses the movie to avenge all the people that did him wrong along life's proverbial dusty road, but he hides behind the alter-ego of Jo Jo Dancer.
Richard Pryor is a real and talented person; Jo Jo Dancer is a Hollywood cliche. After this sort of rags-to-riches-and-show-biz-and-bitches movie has been done so many times before, the only thing that could make this a story worth repeating would be a gossipy, autobiographical format. As it is, the audience endures Richard Pryor's revenge without being able to cross the tenuous line between fiction and fact. This half-hearted approach earns only a half-hearted response.
Of course, Richard Pryor does have the right to cull interesting events from real life, mix in some exaggeration and good old-fashioned melodrama and call it art. And, of course, it would be much more vainglorious and self-glorifying for anything called, say, Down and Out With Richard Pryor, to be more than a made-for-TV movie.
But Prior sets us up to assume that this is his autobiography by creating a fragmented film that the audience can only piece together from the newspaper clips of a few years back. The first scene jumps from Dancer picking up his pipe and freebase right to Dancer looking like a mongrel in the hospital's intensive care unit. Unless we knew exactly what happened to Pryor, we'd have no way of knowing what has happened to Dancer. Freebasing was reputed to be a dangerously potent high prior to Pryor, but it was not a pyromaniac's delight until Pryor went running through Hollywood Hills in full flame.
BUT TO DO Pryor justice, once we get past the self-indulgence (no easy task) and the early scenes of a too-cherubic and too-naive young Jo Jo, the movie does become believable.
When we see Dancer dallying with his second wife Dawn (Barbara Williams), a radical and intellectual white beauty, we know the couple is a bi-racial conjugal stereotype, but it's clearly a stereotype with some factual basis. And the blow by blow (and blow and blow) of Pryor being lapped into the vortex of the Hollywood scene is painfully compelling. The scenes are nothing if not the typical cinematic version of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll in the fast lane, but once again the stereotype earns credence from its factual basis.
Here Dancer begins to emerge not just as Fate's pitiful victim, but as a man with free choice who has chosen, not without some misgivings, to assume a certain kind of lifestyle.
In the end, as we watch Pryor and his conscience playing out the conflicts that led him from freebasing to selfimmolation (all to the thump of Herbie Hancock's throbbing drum), the audience can't helped being shaken by the montage of emotion. Anyone with any heart will fall for this scene, regardless of how many times it's been done before because this time we know it really happened. If only Richard Pryor didn't have to hide behind Jo Jo Dancer.
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