In "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling" Richard Pryor tells what is, for the most part, his own story, from the early days in clubs in the Midwest to the reckless drug addictions that nearly killed him. Pryor (who wrote and directed) might be the most brilliant comedian of his era -- he's certainly among the gentlest, a wizard who creates an imaginative universe on stage by entering the minds of people, animals and even inanimate objects. And if Pryor holds a warm spot in your heart, you're rooting for "Jo Jo Dancer" from the beginning.
The movie is framed (and condensed) by the moment of death: Jo Jo (Pryor) is free-basing cocaine, and whether by accident or not (it's not quite clear) sets himself on fire. Though he's fabulously successful, he's lost the will to live. At the hospital, his good angel (also Pryor) emerges like a ghost from his body and takes off for a tour of Jo Jo's past.
That past includes a boyhood in a small midwestern town spent mostly around the cathouse where his parents (Diahnne Abbott and Scoey Mitchlll) work; early gigs in dives like the Club Shalimar, where he's adopted by the emcee (Billy Eckstine) and a stripper named Satin Doll (Paula Kelly); the Big Time, during the '60s, and marriage to a woman named Dawn (Barbara Williams); and the Really Big Time, complete with a sexy new wife, Michele (Debbie Allen), money, movies, fame and a serious drug problem.
"Jo Jo Dancer" is most successful in its early scenes, where Herbie Hancock's bluesy, evocative score draws you into another world, another time; master cinematographer John Alonzo photographs it with rich colors and a swingy, lyrical camera in the style of an old-fashioned musical. The movie is infused with good-natured shtick, as Pryor gags on celery juice or hightails it from an irate bouncer; and throughout, you remember the music of black vernacular, almost lost in the movies today. What you remember most, though, are the pleasures of Pryor, in his fabulously deadpan mimickry of Satin Doll's striptease, performed in drag, and in the bits of old routines that he re-creates here, set on various nightclub stages in New York and Los Angeles.
Altogether, the movie is marvelously produced, ingeniously edited (by Donn Cambern), immaculately scored (besides Hancock's original music, Jerry Wexler has put together wonderful source music from Count Basie, Muddy Waters and Jr. Walker, among others) and more than intermittently funny.
The nightclub routines, though, while funny enough, aren't blended into the movie's flow -- they don't do much work for the story. And while Barbara Williams turns in a daring, wounded performance as Jo Jo's first wife, and while it's fun to see silky Billy Eckstine poured into a tuxedo and dangling a cigarette again, "Jo Jo Dancer" isn't particularly well acted -- the performances are fine, but there's no life going on among them.
Mostly, Pryor simply can't carry the movie. "Jo Jo Dancer" never acknowledges the problem built into its early scenes -- that we already know that this meek young man is Richard Pryor, a problem that's only aggravated by the polish of the production. We see a young man making it through the lens of someone who's already made it.
The long list of directors who haven't figured out a way to yoke Richard Pryor's genius to a narrative frame now includes Richard Pryor. In "Jo Jo Dancer," he worships the meekness inside himself -- he loves making moon eyes, talking in a small voice, acting terrified. There's something lovely about that (that's where his gentle empathy springs from), but there's something dishonest as well. There is, presumably, another side to Richard Pryor -- in fact, we've seen it, in the anger behind his early stand-up work. Yet in "Jo Jo Dancer," he's simply a victim. Success happens to him, drugs happen to him, death (nearly) happens to him.
That leaves "Jo Jo Dancer" without a meaningful center, and predictably, the movie doesn't coalesce. Bob Fosse has already, in a sense, made "Jo Jo Dancer" twice -- in "Lenny," his pseudo-documentary portrait of the comedian Lenny Bruce, and in his own surrealistic self-portrait, "All That Jazz." Those movies were held together by an adventurousness of style that's missing in "Jo Jo Dancer," but, more importantly, by a certain toughness on Fosse's part, particularly with regard to himself. But Pryor makes Jo Jo pretty consistently lovable -- even his crummy moments (like pitching his wife's car off a cliff, because an old beau gave it to her) are played for laughs.
Pryor never really lets us see his dark side. What's left is a fairly sunny tale about an extremely talented fellow who got involved in drugs, and who got over it. That's inspirational in a People magazine way, but it's not the stuff of movies. Yet you still listen to it. It's as if a friend told you about a not particularly interesting problem of his, but you listened anyway, because it was important to him. And after all, he's your friend.
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, opening today at area theaters, is rated R and contains nudity, profanity and sexual situations.