Jo Jo was a man.
It's funny. The history of film is littered with biographies of important people and their lives, yet few are honest portrayals of the actual events that occurred. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, if you go looking for history in the movies, you are looking for the wrong thing. So imagine my surprise to see Richard Pryor's directorial effort, the very autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling and find that it is basically the same Hollywood whitewash of a remarkable life. One would think that if you were directing a film based on the actual events of your own life that it would be a little more honest.
Making its DVD debut from Columbia, this release comes with average video and a nice audio mix while boasting zero in the way of extras. Kind of sounds like Superbit without the higher quality, yes?
Facts of the Case
Jo Jo Dancer (Richard Pryor) is a king of the entertainment world. He has it all—films, best selling records, women, and all the drugs he can smoke, snort, and shoot. It is in a drug induced haze that Dancer pours liquor all over his body and sets himself ablaze. In the hospital, scarred by burns and barely clinging to life, his soul takes leave of his body and takes a walking tour of Dancer's life. The hope is to show Dancer how he ended up where he is now. Will it be enough to light a fire within Dancer's heart and push him into the light giving him a chance at a better life?
Often stars get to be so big that Hollywood is unable to tell them no. It is these so called "vanity projects" that are designed to show the true acting chops of any number of movie stars. Looking at Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling it would be easy to attach just such a label to this movie. I look at it differently. If you have followed the career of Richard Pryor, you know he is one of the most influential comedians of the past thirty years. His is a name that ranks with Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and other comics who broke all the barriers that were considered taboo coming out of the mid-'60s. If you have also followed his life, you know he is a man who has fought the most powerful demon of all: himself. It was his own addiction that led him to set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. These events are related with painful humor in his later concert films. Still, Pryor obviously had a lot to get off his chest. So in 1986 he stepped behind the camera and came up with Jo Jo Dancer.
Coming back to my original point, I look at this much less as a product of vanity but rather very simply as Pryor's own little sanity project. If this had been a really honest look at his life and his mistakes, then I would have welcomed it warmly. Rather, Pryor seems to sugarcoat the depths that he sunk to. We are given a modern twist on Its A Wonderful Life, with him playing both Jimmy Stewart and his guardian angel. As a performer, Pryor does a great job of playing himself through the years and he also scores some solid points with his direction. It helps matters when he has the late, great John Alonzo (Chinatown) behind the camera as well as some sharp editing from Donn Cambern (The Last Picture Show) and everything is wrapped up in a sexy sounding bow with music by jazz great, Herbie Hancock ('Round Midnight). Throw into the mix other fine performances by the likes of Debbie Allen (Ragtime), Paula Kelly (Uptown Saturday Night), and as the childhood version of Jo Jo, E'Lon Cox and you would think all is well with Jo Jo Dancer. I wish it were. Instead, I keep coming back to the screenplay of Pryor, Rocco Urbisci, and Paul Mooney and the way it short sells the audience. I don't know if the film was longer (sometimes it certainly feels like some stuff is missing or incomplete) and was cut by the studio or what. Yet, what remains is hardly satisfying. So many pieces were there for a really good film, but all we get is a movie that wants to take us to a dark place and chickens out before it gets there. Or maybe once it got started Pryor found that he was cutting too close to his own bone and pulled back. Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling is a movie that I wanted very much to like and I'm sad that the movie wouldn't allow me.
The movie is presented in two versions on opposite sides of the disc. One side has the pan and scan version…in other words, stay away. The other side is an anamorphic transfer maintaining the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The best that can be said of the transfer is that its merely acceptable. To begin with, the image has the expected level of grain associated with a film shot using an anamorphic lens, but the overall picture is soft and lacks detail. Colors seem to be well represented with blacks being solid, but on the flip side flesh tones look quite pasty. Contrast is well handled, while edge enhancement appears to be held to a minimum. I was surprised at how good looking the source material was until the last quarter of the movie when imperfections began to show their face. This is pretty much a mixed bag and it's something I have come to expect from a great deal of movies from the 1980s.
The sound fares a bit better. Sure, it's Dolby Digital Mono, but it's a good sounding track. Dialogue is well recorded, if a little thin sounding, but everything is always clearly audible and bass can even be detected. Herbie Hancock's score is heard to good effect, so I suppose everything is as good as it needs to be.
You want extras? Look somewhere else because Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling is bare bones city.
The Rebuttal Witness
I detailed my complaints with the movie above, but the more I think about it the more I'm convinced there is quite a bit missing from the final product. I'm willing to bet there is a lot of deleted footage and it would have been nice to see it. Hell, the film's theatrical trailer would have been nice as well. I'm not one of these critics who wants the moon with everything single DVD release, but even a little something would have been nice.
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling is a well intentioned failure. It has some really good performances and I must say Pryor was a promising director. It really is a shame that he would be diagnosed with MS the same year this film was released, because I would have liked to have seen more of his work behind the camera.
I can't really recommend this movie. If you want prime Richard Pryor, try renting his concert films. With them you will get a much funnier and honest look at his life; otherwise, feel safe to pass this one by.
Richard Pryor is released because of past glories and the court wishes him well with his long struggle against a painful disease. Columbia is sentenced to six months community service for its lack of thought with regard to this release. This docket is clear and we now stand in recess.
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