Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic
Directed by Marina Zenovich
Written by Marina Zenovich and Chris A. Peterson
For fans of legendary comedian Richard Pryor, eight years removed from his death in 2005 is as ripe a time as any for a thorough cinematic retrospective. The task falls to Marina Zenovich, following up documentary Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, to burrow into the stubborn psyche of a man who defied simple categorisation. Over the course of his life and career, Pryor went from one of the most subversive and popular comedians of all time to a tragically constrained figure burdened by multiple sclerosis, his years in between marred by multiple marriages, heavy drug use and the infamous incident whereby he imitated a burning monk on the television, dousing himself with rum and bursting into a ball of flames.
Needless to say, there is plenty enough backstory on the plate that would enable Zenovich to, by default, offer up a shocking, provocative and moving curio for fans and newcomers. The director has unwittingly shot herself in the foot by naming the film Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic – based on interviewee David Bays’ statement, “To understand Richard Pryor, you have to omit the logic.” This admission lets out that any traditional modes of understanding the method behind Pryor’s madness through documentary would ultimately fail to serve the man justice – and lo, that appears to be the case.
Zenovich starts from the start, tracing Pryor’s initial rise through expletive-laden LP circulation – “It was a secret, like learning to say motherfucker,” says Mike Epps – to his crossover into film with “Lady Sings the Blues”, his role in initiating “Blazing Saddles”, and various other Hollywood successes and failures that contributed to his alternating mood pattern. Around midway, the talking heads cease their celebration of Pryor’s myriad achievements and attempt to wrap their head around his preposterous self-immolation, addiction to freebasing and compulsion to doomed marriages (Jennifer Lee Pryor appears as “Wife 4 +7”).
There are a few instances of genuine incisiveness that unearth Pryor’s upbringing and its effect on his madcap behaviour. He grew up in a bordello overseen by his grandmother, an icy matriarch whose influence – devolved to his uncles, regarded as ‘real pimps’ – led to Pryor impregnating a girl at age 15, a watershed moment which likely shaped his response to societal expectations of his responsibilities.
Disheartening archival footage charts the aging, degenerating Pryor’s journey to the grave, though these clips are interspersed with welcome scenes previously censored from television and belonging to a more cautious, intolerant era, and one particular unseen train-wreck from a comeback gig at the Sunset Strip that left the comedian’s fans baffled. Outside of these rarities, the contributors have little to offer outside of touching personal recollections pertaining to Pryor. However, a keener eye will be able to read through the ostensibly broad lines and piece together a fuzzy picture of the man’s psyche, tormented by an oxymoronic narcissistic self-hatred still evident in many of today’s celebrities, yet uniquely shaped by individual experience. Either way, Pryor doesn’t welcome the close inspection; his last words in the doco: “To bring joy, that’s how I’d like to be remembered.”