by Ryan Ciecwisz
From the April 2015 Issue
Richard Pryor is considered by many to be the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. In the film world, he was famous for his endeavors on screen with Gene Wilder in films like Silver Streak and Stir Crazy and he helped write the beloved Blazing Saddles. However, the question is: How, if at all, does this talent transfer when Pryor is sitting in the director’s chair?
If you asked critics who panned Pryor’s lone directorial credit, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling or the indifferent audience members who attended the film in 1986, they would probably tell you that Pryor’s magic is gone in this film. But this cannot be further from the truth. In Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, Pryor lovingly crafts a melancholy and often very funny film.
That tonal contrast is perhaps the most interesting thing about the film. It skirts the line, drifting far closer to drama than comedy – something certainly unexpected from one of the funniest men who ever lived. During interviews for Jo Jo Dancer’s release, Pryor asserted that the film was not autobiographical. Just like how Bob Dylan asserted that his collection of break-up songs that constituted Blood on the Tracks – and was released as his marriage was falling apart – was not personal. Or how Woody Allen’s film, Stardust Memories, about a former comedian who longs to create more serious films and struggles to find out if his career can sustain a change in artistic voice, is not personal. Simply put, Pryor follows in the footsteps of other talented artists vehemently declaring that their remarkably personal work is not personal.
The film starts with the titular Jo Jo Dancer (played by Pryor) trying to stay clean. It quickly devolves into Jo Jo pathetically crawling on all fours along his carpet looking for crack rocks. He invites his drug dealer to a party in order to score some cocaine, and then laments that he now has to throw a party.
After burning himself up in a freebasing incident, Jo Jo is rushed to the hospital (Much like Pryor, himself, was after a similar accident in real life, which he later would claim to be a suicide attempt). From here, his alter ego separates from him and urges Jo Jo to hold on to life. This is the point at which we delve into Jo Jo’s earlier life.
As a child, he is raised by his grandmother and lives in a brothel where his mother…works. It’s clear that the difficulties he has later in life with alcohol, sex and women stem partially from this childhood. There are plenty of nostalgic scenes involving Jo Jo’s early existence. He decides to leave home in the hopes of becoming a stand-up comedian. Eventually, like Pryor, his talents are recognized and he joins the celebrity A-list, enjoying fame and all the vices that come along with it.
The film is a clever vehicle to explore how unhappy we can be as human beings. Jo Jo has wealth and public notoriety, but he can’t seem to get his romantic relationships right, as evidenced in his many marriages. Beyond that, he has a crippling self-esteem problem. The love from all his fans is not enough to motivate him to love himself. We always think that one thing will fix all our problems. We may say, “This relationship is going to make me feel better about myself.” And while this is true to some extent, as we attain the things that we want, we realize that each accomplishment has more problems accompanying it. Then we may say, “I’m jealous of all these other people talking to my significant other” or “I’m not sure that this person is the right one to be with.” It’s never enough; we’re prone to always want the situation to be better, no matter what it is.
Maybe Pryor wasn’t the best director in the world when he made Jo Jo Dancer. There are some hokey scenes and a couple of cheesy lines. But who cares? That’s part of what makes the film endearing. It’s a terrific and highly ambitious debut and it’s a shame that he never followed it up.
With Pryor’s signature style of humor peppered throughout the film and an extremely emotionally effective climax, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling is a film that should be far more known than it is, especially for fans of stand-up comedy.