Richard Pryor's life has been riddled with disaster so when he made a film that was largely autobiographical, it was bound
to have some tragedy mixed in with the jokes. 1986's Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling does touch on some of the
comic's darker periods but still comes off a little easy. Still, considering that Pryor co-wrote and directed the film himself, it
is impressively honest.
Jo Jo Dancer begins with one of the most notorious events of Pryor's life: His burning himself nearly to death while
freebasing cocaine. This is the jump-off point for the film's somewhat effective narrative gimmick: Jo Jo's soul floats out of his
body and looks down at the melted mess that he's become. While standing by his own hospital bed, Jo Jo shakes his head at
what's become of him.
The rest of the film is basically a tour through the events that led him to this situation, sort of like It's
a Miserable Life. Jo Jo is shown trying to get the attention of his parents while growing up in a whorehouse (his soul has
a maudlin conversation with his mom in between johns), as well as with a succession of sketchily defined wives. Jo Jo's dad
throws him out of the house when he explains why he quit his blue collar job to try his hand at comedy.
The film is most
effective when it illustrates Jo Jo's rise in popularity. Pryor's stage material is terrific and a montage of him playing bigger
and bigger venues is hilarious and keeps the focus on the man's talent, rather than silly distractions. Still, Pryor shows
himself being guided at critical times, like when one of his wives disappoints him at a coke-and-sex party. Moments like this
gloss over his own active role in the destruction of many of these relationships. In the end, however, Pryor puts the blame
for Jo Jo's incineration on his own shoulders.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is fine, displaying less dirt and damage than expected. Colors are crisp and the
cinematography (by John Alonzo) is surprisingly good at times. A full-frame version is available on the flip side.
The mono soundtrack is acceptable. Dialog is usually clear, although a few scenes are a bit murky. Overall, for such humble
materials, the film sounds fine. Herbie Hancock's score has some very nice passages.
There are no extras.
Jo Jo Dancer slips into unnecessary sentimentality at times and doesn't feel completely honest at others. At barely an
hour and a half the film is only able to give the slightest insight into a complicated life, but it is still worthwhile as an inside
look at one of entertainment's most important figures. Pryor's current condition (crippled with Multiple Sclerosis, he's all but a shut in) makes a flawed film like Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling all the more valuable.