Controversial figures apparently attract Marina Zenovich. After her celebrated docu “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” and its less acclaimed follow-up, the documentarian tackles the rococo ups, downs and reincarnations that marked a brilliant comedian’s career in “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic.” Though the film features a number of fellow comics praising Pryor’s genius, from Bob Newhart to Whoopi Goldberg, Zenovich concentrates on those lawyers, agents, wives and collaborators most central to the different stages of his highly eventful life. Skedded for a May 31 Showtime airing, this straight-ahead docu, like its subject, packs surprising punches.
Zenovich generously samples bestselling comedy LPs, early TV appearances and film clips representing the different Pryors on display, from the Bill Cosby-like crossover comedian who enjoyed great initial success, wowing Vegas only to utterly sabotage himself, to the phoenix that rose from the ashes of near-fatal self-immolation. In between, she taps any number of Pryor’s distinct identities: the transcendental hippie who gave up all material possessions; the abrasive, N-word-spouting, wildly funny storyteller and quick-change character creator of immortal standup routines; the man who gave his breakthrough performance as Piano Man in “Lady Sings the Blues”; the co-writer and would-be star of Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” (Warner Brothers refused to give him the role, afraid of his iconoclastic image); and the inventor, with Gene Wilder, of wildly successful interracial buddy comedies.
Along the way, the filmmaker explores the purely biographical aspects of Pryor’s trajectory. A “This Is Your Life” segment featuring his grandmother, portrayed in the show as the owner of a pool hall, leads to a more uncensored discussion of Pryor’s colorful childhood, as he was brought up by his grandfather and hardcore-pimp father in a brothel owned and operated by his beloved grandma. A steady procession of ex-wives (seven in all, counting repeats) and girlfriends attest, with varying degrees of exasperation and affection, to his philandering, and they’re joined by friends, colleagues and associates in speaking of his out-of-control cocaine addiction. One of those wives, exec producer Jennifer Lee Pryor, returns to care for him after he is diagnosed with MS and confined to a wheelchair, his caustic wit undimmed by his condition.
One of the most fascinating developments in Pryor’s meteoric career comes at the height of his Hollywood popularity, when he negotiates full control of his own multimillion-dollar production company (shown via photographs and TV news coverage) which he dreams of turning into an alternative black media empire. Zenovich unfortunately places this eventually failed experiment solely in the context of Pryor’s personal history, never connecting it to the rise and subsequent erosion of other black power movements of the time. In general, however, the dialogue she creates between her interviewees and the comedian’s own words and routines, seen in extended excerpts, makes for a highly fascinating exchange that shortchanges no one, least of all the outspoken Pryor himself.