Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for pervasive language, sexual dialogue and drug references
Running Time: 82 min.
Cast: Richard Pryor
Cameo: Jesse Jackson
Director: Joe Layton
Screenplay: Richard Pryor
Review published January 5, 2008
It's not an easy proposition to review a concert film under standard criteria, whether it deals with music, comedy, or the performing arts. In the case of a stand-up comedian, the comedic merit is in the funny bone of the beholder, so if the comic isn't funny to that particular reviewer, the movie as a whole will be a boring experience, no matter how well packaged and shrewdly edited the footage may be. In the case of Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, my task is a bit easier, in that Pryor is such an icon and has influenced whole generations of comedians that to not find him funny would probably negate any authority to even review his act, or perhaps of comedy, especially African-American stand-up itself.
Luckily, Pryor just so happens to be, with the possible exception of George Carlin, my all-time favorite comedian. However, to the uninitiated to Pryor's work, I would suggest not looking at his act as a bunch of one-liners, scripted segues or a thoroughly rehearsed series of monologues. Pryor is much more of a semi-improvisational comedian, which makes him quite remarkable, as he can captivate the audience for over an hour without really having a great deal of concern for how many laughs per minute he can squeeze in. The reason he is funny is because he can speak about himself and the world around him, sometimes even in a serious fashion, and find humor in everything he sees or does. As he tells a story, through his keen observations and dead-on impersonations we can imagine ourselves there right along with him, laughing at the folly of his missteps and the foibles of his vices.
The most notable of these anecdotes happened to have been the most newsworthy event of his career, which Pryor relates with all of the poignancy, pathos and comedic "poetry" as could probably be related to someone suffering major burns on half of their body as a result of an accident occurring while freebasing cocaine. Pryor ran down the street aflame, unable to stop the burning until the authorities arrived on the scene. Even if you are firmly anti-drug, you can't help but find his description of his own wretchedness in the addiction to be compelling, perhaps even endearing in a twisted fashion. If there's ever a speech that will might change a person's vision of drug addiction away from evil acts done by despicable people, and toward a disease that needs psychological care and medical treatment to overcome, Pryor's personal account is it.
As far as the technical quality, director Joe Layton does a fine job in editing the performance, giving us a close up look at the performer and his interactions with the audience that obviously loves him. The only change I might have made would have been to resist the urge to show audience reaction shots, as well as the tracking shots through the crowd that don't quite seem synchronous with the concert footage. Some of these look spliced in randomly after the fact, perhaps to cover up gaffes or portions that have been edited for time or consistency. Nevertheless, it does reveal (very briefly) Rev. Jesse Jackson in the audience laughing at a particularly raunchy segment of Pryor's routine.
As this is Pryor's first public performance since before the incident, he does take some time to get into a familiar groove, as his insecurities and nervous habits have him trying to come up with material he isn't quite sure of himself. However, it's obvious that the audience is completely at his side from the get go, willing to laugh and applaud at pretty much whatever he chooses to do, enjoying the fact that they are seeing the superstar once more. Pryor eventually does find his footing, though it takes nearly a half hour, and once he does, it's on par with his best stuff. While the film as a whole isn't as consistent from beginning to end as Live in Concert, some tidbits on the making of Stir Crazy, his revelations while on a trip to Africa, the impromptu "Mudbone" act (which isn't necessarily funny so much as affecting), the tale of Pryor coming up in the business dealing with Mafioso types, and the aforementioned accident material are truly funny, interesting and touching all at the same time.
As a man, Pryor is far from an angel, but in the world of comedy, he is a god, and the good moments of Live on the Sunset Strip show us why. Although his delivery is often imitated, no one before or since has been able to match his socially-conscious sincerity in his vision of a world where everyone can get along, or his self-deprecation at all of his many personal imperfections. If you've never seen him perform before, you might be off put by the huge outpouring of love the audience gives him for even the least funny of commentary, but by the end of the film, it's hard to fault them when realizing you feel the love and appreciation for seeing a phenomenal insight into a man that can turn the worst of tragedies into a a triumph of comedic insights and inspirational perseverance.
©2008 Vince Leo