Everybody who appreciates stand-up comedy knows that a biopic on Richard Pryor is long overdue. And anybody who’s seen Pryor’s film work knows that by far the most interesting film he ever made was “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling” in 1986. Even though Pryor insisted the film wasn’t autobiographical, it clearly had much more autobiographical elements than he apparently wanted to admit.
In the above film, he also demonstrated why only he could arguably play himself when it came to his stand-up routines. That’s going to be a challenge with the actor portraying Pryor in a newly announced biopic production headed by Forest Whitaker. Recreating comedic lightning in a bottle may explain why so many attempts have been abandoned in recent years to do a biopic on Pryor’s life.
It’s not that it can’t be done if finding a one in a million brilliant actor who can assimilate the magic. We saw it before 40 years ago with Dustin Hoffman when he portrayed Lenny Bruce in 1974’s “Lenny.” Although we similarly saw it fail in a 1978 TV movie with Buddy Hackett and Harvey Korman attempting to recreate the comedic chemistry of Abbott and Costello.
Merely mimicking the routines as if reciting them in a mirror is quite different from making them look spontaneous. In a sense, that’s what made “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling” so interesting in that the comedy routines we see Pryor do are slightly different from the ones he did in real life. Yet, it was still Pryor’s personality that made it look like you were seeing his life unfold through a slightly alternative timeline.
That film may end up coming out of obscurity once the Pryor biopic is made for the big screen. Most people likely remember seeing it on TV rather than in a movie theater, especially for the re-creation of Pryor setting himself on fire after freebasing cocaine. Obviously, that incident will be portrayed in the Pryor biopic, and perhaps at the same time it was placed in “Jo Jo Dancer” for dramatic effect.
Don’t necessarily count out the biopic referencing the above film in more than way, particularly the narrative. One of the most common methods in biopics is having the notable looking back on his or her life in one form or another. At the beginning of “Jo Jo”, Pryor’s Dancer character is already in the hospital after the burning accident and abstractly goes back in time to interact with his past self.
The above was also used to some degree in “Beyond the Sea” where Kevin Spacey portrayed iconic entertainer Bobby Darin. As well, it all seems to fit with a story of Pryor who apparently needed to reflect on the regret of his self-destructive ways. If the biopic goes that route, it may end up being a near duplicate of “Dancer”, other than somehow re-creating Pryor’s real comic routines.
Of course, if the stand-up routines are the highlights of the biopic, will they touch on Pryor co-writing and directing “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling” in the sunset of his career? In that scenario, we’d see some true creativity in art imitating the imitation of a life. Because Pryor’s widow is a consultant on the biopic, we may even find out for sure if the film was much more autobiographical than he could ever say while alive.