|In the first half of the year 1986 Comedian Richard Pryor could scarcely have been bigger than he was. His teaming with the great Gene Wilder had yielded some excellent films, his albums were selling like ice cream in the desert, comedians of various race and age were crediting him as a major cutting edge influence, he had just completed a fantastic Saturday Morning TV show, had finally kicked drugs, and had even costarred with the Man of Steel in Superman III. His next step was a labor of love in the form of a movie written by, starring and directed by Pryor himself. Much to the chagrin of Pryor and his, this labor of love was panned and became a financial failure. As one of the world's biggest Pryor fans even then at the age of 12 (twelve? Yeah, I guess that's right) I was saddened to hear this and assumed that Pryor's vanity piece was a little too transparent. After seeing and becoming a fan of this piece I can swear that this is no vanity piece, this is no self indulgent mess, and this is not in any way deserving of the history it received. What Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling happens to be is a deep drama, a funny movie about fame and the perils and pains that come with being at the top (and the torture of not making it yet). This is a truly brilliant movie deserving a look especially now when so many hack jobs make millions.
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling begins with a chapter from Pryor's own real life, his attempts to kick drugs and pain resulting in third-degree burns over half his body and a rush to the hospital. Like Pryor, Jo Jo Dancer lay in intensive care recovering from the burns and at the same time fighting withdrawals from freebased cocaine. At this point Dancer's Soul removes itself from his burned and broken body and begins to lecture Dancer on "what you've done to us!" To make its point Dancer's Soul (credited also to Pryor as "Alter Ego") takes Dancer for a walk through his own memories where the soul can explore, review and even interact and interfere with his own past. The result can be funny very often but is so much more often painful and dramatic, from Little Jo Jo's upbringing for part of his life in an Ohio Brothel, to his early twenties living with an angry father, a wife and a step-mother, to a young Jo Jo struggling as a beginning comic in Cleveland to his slow, but steady rise to the top, to his eventual full circle to the ICU.
The remarkable thing about this movie is how well balanced and fascinating this film is kept by Pryor, a first time feature director (his previous credit being Richard Pryor Here and Now, a 1983 stand up concert). One is never allowed to forget that this big rich superstar comedian is still in so many way little Jo Jo who just wants to be loved and accepted, and most of all, understood. The script by Pryor with Rocco Urbisci & Paul Mooney does successfully portray this evolution while holding on tightly to the past (not altogether a difficult thing when your soul is temporally unstuck in your own past) but it is Pryor's acting that conveys this best. Sure everyone knows that Pryor is a funny man, but here he shows what a brilliant dramatic actor he really is. Both Dancer and Alter Ego run the gamut of emotions and are ultimately still trapped by these feelings just as Jo Jo the boy and Jo Jo the young man were. The entire time Pryor as Director keeps the entire thing from falling into Melodrama, which is no simple task.
The film is a great success at conveying Pryor's skills as a director and as a dramatic actor, however as funny as he can be sometimes (only intentionally) what makes both Dancer and Pryor who they are is the stand-up comedy we see too precious little of here. Pryor does show Dancer's evolution as a comedian from bumbling and nervous newcomer who captures the crowd finally with physical comedy, to a self-assured climbing comic, to an experimental "dirty" comic, to a seasoned veteran (commonly gaged by the size of his afro). Unfortunately, much of the time this is shown in swatches during musical interludes. So many brilliant moments seem to be hidden by a collage-work of scenes from the stage that sometimes leave one with only the setup (no punch line) of an incomplete joke and the Audience's reaction to another. There are some great standup moments but not enough to prove why Dancer becomes the success that he does. Perhaps the jokes themselves seemed inconsequential to the plot and could have ended up on the cutting room floor easier than a scene of relationship pain, but the comedy itself IS vital to the plot and should have gotten a better representation than it did.
There are also a few too many rapid jumps forward in the plot for comfort. At times Dancer finds himself in an impossible predicament but by the next scene is happy as a calm clam without any real resolution to the prior strife (no pun intended). Conversely at times his life seems to be going perfectly but suddenly the world comes to an end without warning or filmed reason. To be fair, it may have been Pryor's intention to simply be a retrospective of the most significant parts of Jo Jo's life and perhaps Pryor wanted us to feel the retrospective confusion that Dancer feels on the ICU table as Alter Ego shuffles his memories. Kudos if that was the intent, but it does make for a slightly uneven viewing experience. Perhaps what might have been in order was a borrowed page from Bob Fosse's very similar Lenny which solved temporal gaps with staged interviews amounting to narrations. Far be it from me to suggest that this film needed such improvement as it's not too hard to catch up (most of the time), but the audience might miss a few key points while playing catch up. That's not to say that Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling is inferior to Lenny. In fact, in many ways this is an improvement. The audience feels more for Jo Jo than they might for Lenny Bruce, and the story is told in a much more heart-felt and with much more gravity and humanity than any movie of its kind.
There is a reason that this movie isn't known as The Richard Pryor Story... that being, it isn't! While the lives of Jo Jo and of Richard have very many similarities there are many differences as well. I could go deeply into the fact that Pryor was from Illinois, Dancer from Ohio, and on and on until I'm blue in the face, but it would be futile here. There are no Gregory Benford moments here because Pryor, Urbisci and Mooney balance the "Semi" and the "Autobiographical" very well constructing a great and heart-wrenching film based on Pryor but allowing the man both privacy and poetic license. In some of Pryor's shirtless instances his real life burn scars can be visibly seen, but that doesn't detract from the continuity unless you're really looking for it (and it is Jo Jo's memory of the past, not actual time travel that we see, so why not?).
The drama is cut with moments of comedy that aren't necessarily the moments of comedy one might expect from Pryor. There are several unexpected and successful occasions that give one a big snicker in a strange way, and many others that make one say "That's my Richard!" The key here is that never once does the comedy delve into the easy or the trashy, even when Dancer enters into his "Dirty Comic" phase. Never once does he rely on toilet humor or vomiting to get your laugh and never once does he attempt to gross you out to make a quick buck (even during an impression of a baby getting born). I leave it to you, intelligent brilliance like this or a five minute script like Austin Powers?
The Eighties were thankfully at the end of the period in which a man could be funny because he was black. Even some of the better Pryor films contain at least one scene in which his (otherwise written without race in mind) character gets a great laugh because... hey... he's an African American... isn't that great?!?!? Hell, The Toy was built around that very concept! In this movie there is none of that. Dancer is black! He's proud to be black and he has knowledge of and exposure to Malcolm X and other representations of the struggle of the time (like white Johns knocking on the black bordello's back door). However Pryor seems to cut out any further racial discord. He has no interest in pointing the finger of blame at anyone but the choices Jo Jo (and presumably he himself) has made. There are no jokes at the expense of his race.
The supporting cast is also a good compliment to Pryor's alternately teary and funny performance. E'Lon Cox who played Little Jo Jo is certainly a child actor and seems more child than actor at times. However, he is a dead ringer for a baby Pryor and does a great job of conveying what Jo Jo feels. Further his performance mirrors Pryor's own when Jo Jo as an adult falls back into his lost child persona. Carmen McRae as Jo Jo's Grandmother adds a dimension of understanding, love, strength and regret as does Diahnne Abbott (to a lesser extent) as Jo Jo's mother. Scoey Mitchell as Jo Jo's father is both loving and abusive and ultimately teary and regretful. All are worthy of recognition for their acting. Paula Kelly, Barbara Williams, Fay Hauser and Debbie Allen all shine in their own ways as the diverse women in Jo Jo's life! Michael Ironside as a tough detective and Dennis Farina as a silent bartender also add effective needed atmosphere. It remains Pryor's show, however, and he is more than up to the challenge of holding the cast together and showing Dancer stripped down to his barest emotions and built up to his best masks.
This is a very raw and gritty movie quite unlike that which was considered "good drama" at the time. From the profanity to the violence to the nudity and drug use this is much more Taxi Driver than Love Story or Terms of Endearment. Its honesty and grit makes it better than the dramas of the day, and were it to have come out a decade before or after it would have been considered the triumph that it is! This isn't a retread of Lenny either... this is Pryor's labor of love and a sharing of his scarred soul.
Maybe Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling isn't perfect, but it's very good, and it's my favorite film of its kind. It may be a tear jerker, but it's not a cheap one. Pryor is a genius as a comedian and is a very good director as well! I'm not sure what sort of society would make Caddyshack a success while Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling failed at the box office. This is a daring, serious and funny movie Just a hair's breadth better than Lenny which is an achievement in itself. Pryor deserves the credit for a great movie. Four and one half Stars out of Five for Richard Pryor's best movie. It's superb, truly, and almost perfect! God Bless you Mr. Pryor... your work is appreciated now.