Thursday, January 19, 2017

Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip

Watching 1982's RICHARD PRYOR LIVE ON THE SUNSET STRIP, a more self-explanatory title for a movie I can't recall, has always been a bit of an eerie experience for me.  My first encounter with it was when I was fourteen.  It ran on HBO but at the time we only had pay TV competitor Showtime. But - if you had one of those black converter boxes, you would get a scrambled picture, with sound intact.  I cassette tape recorded several HBO comedy specials with Robin Williams and George Carlin.  When Pryor's film came on I was very excited, by then familiar with his comedy albums which I had to listen to on the sly due to their, ahem, rather profane content.  So while the image of SUNSET STRIP had that jumpy line down the middle, I heard every word of the comedian's riotous but chilling monologue.

Eerie.  I laughed a lot, yes, but there was something very uncomfortable about this one.  Not the kind of discomfort when a comic is bombing.  After a slightly nervous start, Pryor was on to the finish, as trenchant as ever.  But he was never merely a guy telling jokes.  He was a natural storyteller, whether relaying childhood tales or doing his Mudbone routine (happily continued in this movie).  He always set out to make his audience twitch, and think.  To confront them.  I imagined many in his audience came to laugh at the outrageous sexual humor, the plethora of obscenities.  To howl at Pryor's ribbing of his own race.  Richard would trap them steadily, then release a torrent of anger, though not always so obviously.   He was not a side show act, a caricature; he was there to convict those who'd use the word "nigger" casually or as a weapon, no matter what color their skin was.  Pryor used the word so much that maybe for some the shock and power of it had long faded.  That was the idea?

SUNSET STRIP is eerie because Pryor should not have been alive to do it.  A few years earlier, after the massive success of his first theatrical concert film, he had nearly burned himself alive while freebasing cocaine.  A miracle.  Apparently God didn't want him yet.  It would've been quite a way to go, an audacious death for an audacious life.   But there he is, clad in red jacket, recounting the events that almost took him to the other side.  It's like hearing/watching a ghost talk about How It Happened.  Or having front room seats to the afterlife and hearing the tale.

I could hear it in his voice.  When I actually saw the movie a few years later, I could see it in a few uncertain moves around the stage.  As mentioned, the confidence was not quite there at first, until he got rolling with his material, covering sex, mobsters, and his eye-opening trip to Africa ("That mother-- looked just like Joe Frazier!").  His delivery eventually found its rhythm, and his act was as engrossing as ever.  But there was still a detectable undercurrent of fear, or sadness. Though if you look hard enough, it bubbles under the surface of most stand-ups' shows.

Pryor was more wounded than many of his contemporaries, and did little to hide this during the SUNSET STRIP show.  That is one of the reasons I find it so fascinating.  Richard Pryor was grateful to have a second chance, to still be around, to make folks double over and feel the sting of recognition of his unmatched examination of race and gender relations in America..  Director Joe Layton thankfully does not utilize intrusive methods in his document, though he commits a common sin in concert films: using audience cutaways that are not in real time with what's happening on stage.  It's a cheat, and the audience here is always shown in hysterics, but it does not detract.  It's a night of comedy, but the darkness is not merely in the shadows this time.  How interesting that Pryor performed this material where he did, a place littered with celebrity tragedy.  But he lived to tell the tale.

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