“Least you got to see a motherfucker crucify himself,” Richard Pryor spits in the most surprising footage director Marina Zenovich has unearthed for her new documentary Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic. The scene is of Pryor’s last great cock-up just before his last, great comeback. Pacing restlessly before a Hollywood Paladium audience packed with celebrities, the scarlet and black of his suit suggesting the fire he’d nearly killed himself in 18 months before, the best stand-up comic of his age found he had jack-shit to say. He tries doing his act, which never was memorized, but it comes out backward. He fumbles with a cigarette. He swears, more to himself than the crowd, and the words don’t trigger the pleasures we expect from Richard Pryor swearing—they’re the notes of a musician tuning up, not a musician in impassioned solo.
Finally, he does what he always did, the thing that made him different. He tells the truth: “Least you got to see a motherfucker crucify himself.” Saying it he seems freer, looser, the performer rather than the man. It’s as if the more his words sting, the more they sing. That dug out of him, he apologizes to the crowd—“this shit didn’t work”—and flees. The next night, he would try again, and that performance, in that same suit, would be the performance, Live on the Sunset Strip, the comedy film you’d send into space if you wanted to show the universe just how much human joy can be scraped out of human hurt, the one where he talks you right through everything he felt after that night when, bottomed-out, freebasing, he opted for self-immolation.
Again, the motherfucker crucifies himself, but this time he’s in charge.
Compelling but abbreviated, this new doc can’t match the power of Live on the Sunset Strip. Those revealing scenes of Pryor bombing on the cusp of his comeback whip past too quickly, as do the excerpts from his more familiar triumphs. Today, documentaries about the great performers face a challenge unprecedented in media history: offering a fuller portrait of their subject than audiences could assemble on their own through shrewd YouTubing.
Chunks of the swift-moving film—Pryor’s appearances on Ed Sullivan or The Tonight Show—do feel like suggestions for further, fuller research. But Zenovich’s narrative takes on tragic power as it surges through Pryor’s ascent to stardom, his seven marriages, his debilitating addictions, his whorehouse upbringing, and the sometimes cheery, sometimes ferocious ways he smashed his kind of blackness into the American mainstream. We see his battles with cowardly NBC censors on the short-lived The Richard Pryor Show, a series on which America’s most controversial entertainer presented himself as an emasculated prisoner of the network. We see Johnny Carson asking Pryor about the title of his 1974 LP That Nigger’s Crazy: Should white people be “comfortable” saying it? “Most white people,” Pryor says, “they can’t say the word ‘crazy.’”
Zenovich has assembled better-than-usual talking heads, all sympathetic even when dishing the worst bad behavior. There are tears; there are tales of a “mound” of cocaine; there’s Jennifer Lee Pryor, introduced in subtitle as “Wife No. 4 and 7,” speaking frankly about the day that Pryor took up freebasing and lost interest in everything else. Mel Brooks re-tells the sad, dumb story of Warner Brothers being too chickenshit to cast Pryor in Blazing Saddles, which he helped write—Brooks, the mensch, credits Pryor with the line “Mongo only pawn É in game of life.” Of the latter-day appreciators, only Dave Chappelle makes much impact, mostly because he attempts to out-Pryor Pryor: If comedy were a woman, Chappelle argues, “then he fucked the shit out of her. He fucked her in every orifice.”
Like many in the film, Chappelle seems to see a link between Pryor’s turbulent offstage life and his digging-deep onstage genius. The argument goes that Pryor getting arrested, or bitching out gay Hollywood at a fundraiser, or having “snorted up Peru” all gave him the chance to come clean onstage, to find through his art urgent human truths. Nobody here speculates that it might have been the other way around: that the years of laying himself bare for millions might have whetted a desire for greater darknesses to cop to.
Zenovich has crafted a sturdy precis to Pryor’s brilliant disaster of a life, but the man and his place in the culture prove much more complex than the doc’s presentation of it. There’s little insight about Pryor’s fallow mid-1980s (Superman III and The Toy), or about the failure of his 1986 autobiographical writer/director project Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, possibly his last attempt at greatness. That film, itself a not-quite-brilliant disaster, offers Zenovich a gift few other documentarians have ever lucked into: footage of her subject’s lowest moments, actually created by that subject. She works it for all it’s worth. As Jo Jo Dancer lights the match that will leave him burn-covered and almost dead, we hear employees’ and friends’ horrific detailing of the true scene—and we hear Pryor, onstage, telling the story himself. Only one other man ever got so much mileage out of a crucifixion.