Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Marina Zenovich, premieres tomorrow night at 9pm on Showtime. Considering its sold out premiere at Tribeca Festival prompted one scalper to sell tickets for a 100% mark-up on Craigslist, Showtime subscribers may want to see what their passwords are worth.
This latest documentary about the iconic standup will air during a boon of excellent new documentaries about trail blazing comic geniuses, including Elaine Stritch (Sundance Selects), Mel Brooks (PBS), and Moms Mabley (HBO). It certainly holds its own as biographical TV specials go. The result is a fine primer for the uninitiated and a Valentine for prior (pun intended) fans.
“The two most beautiful words in the world of comedy: Richard Pryor,” Cecil Baron, a novelist and friend of Pryor, says in the beginning of the film, which answers its own question as to why Pryor is so beloved.
The format of the film is familiar. Zenovich leans on the well-traversed staple of the comedy documentary genre of celebrities book-ending video clips and photos by direct-to-camera interviews where they swoon over the genius with reverential superlatives. Luckily for us, Pryor’s peers include Lily Tomlin, Dave Chappelle, Paul Mooney, Bob Newhart, and Baron. Their testimonials are not necessary. Pryor’s utterly groundbreaking candor and heart-breaking experiences, from free-basing to growing up in a brothel, speak for themselves. The archival footage of Pryor discussing the painful ramifications of drug abuse, resurrection after setting himself on fire, and debilitating effects of Multiple Sclerosis is as gripping as the excerpts from his stand up performances.
The director does also deftly capture the complexity of Pryor’s difficult journey as a black male superstar in white-bread Hollywood. He emerged on the coattails of America’s sweetheart Bill Cosby, and, at the time, became the highest paid African-American actor, earning more than the star of the film Christopher Reeve, in Superman III. Pryor then faltered as a businessman, pushing films intended to be made by black filmmakers and as an actor in schlock comedies. Ultimately, his courage, ingenuity, and defiance were indisputably ground breaking.
In our interview, Zenovich said that the film is “really about Pryor’s work,” except plenty of airtime is given to his sordid personal life. In Pryor’s case, the overlap makes perfect sense considering the lack of boundaries in his life and the content of his greatest achievement: his honesty as a stand up. Best known for directing Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Zenovich doesn’t shy away from controversial subjects, and says she, “wants the audience to draw their own conclusions.” That said it’s hard to know why Pryor slammed gay rights activists at a gay rights benefit, based solely on the footage. It’s also curious what else got cut.
For better or for worse, Jennifer Lee, Pryor’s seventh and fourth wife, executive producer of the film and executor of his estate, voice reigns through out the film. Lee and a couple ex-girlfriends gossip through out the film about his seven marriages to five women; however, only one of his six children gets even a minute of airtime. As Lee has publicly pondered doing a follow-up film, hopefully his kids, including Rain Pryor who is a comedian, will weigh in on his legacy.
“There’s just not enough time to put everything in,” Zenovich explains. True enough. One feature length documentary cannot fully delve into the nine lives of this modern day Shakespearean character. We do get more than a glimpse into Pryor’s life, a roller coaster ride and how, as Baron says, the “demons he [Pryor] wanted to exorcise in the audience became demons he had trouble exorcising in himself.”