When Marina Zenovich made her 2008 doc “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” she had an angle on her subject that gave the film a sense of urgency even though it was centered around events that took place 30 years before. It wasn’t a simple profile of Polanski, it was a look at his sexual abuse scandal, at the squirmy intersection of fame and the American legal system, at how the director’s reputation, work and foreignness affected how he was perceived and treated by the press and by those involved in the case. (The fact that Polanski was still on the lam after fleeing before sentencing didn’t hurt, and Zenovich would have an even more personal hook to her 2012 sequel “Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out,” which documented how the first film led to renewed interest in the case and Polanski’s arrest at the 2009 Zurich Film Festival.)
Zenovich’s new film, “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic,” isn’t one that she originated — “The Polanski project was my idea, so they were passion projects. Someone came to me with the Richard Pryor idea,” she told The Playlist — and it lacks the sense of focus and personal engagement of the Polanski film. It’s a routine portrait of a celebrity, and given that the celebrity in question is one as talented, influential and controversial as Pryor, that feels like a terrible waste. Pryor, whose groundbreaking, caustic, perceptive and personal stand-up came paired with plenty of demons and tendencies toward self-destruction, is too good and too rich a topic to be given such rote treatment, and Zenovich never seems able to get a real grasp on the comedian.
Part of the problem may be that the film introduces the incident in which Pryor set himself on fire in 1980 early on, in the intro, as if it were key to understanding the man. But the event doesn’t offer an easy window into his mindset so much as an irresistible symbol — here’s someone who survived literal self-immolation after multiple metaphorical attempts with cocaine and alcohol abuse, with vitriol and profanity on stage. Pryor was cagey about the fire (which almost killed him) after it happened, first claiming it was a freebasing-related accident, then joking about it in 1982’s “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip,” and only eventually admitting to Barbara Walters in 1986, in a clip included in the film, that it had been a suicide attempt, on which he did not elaborate. The gathered friends, colleagues and admirers interviewed discuss the moment in more detail, but it remains elusive — and Pryor himself can’t be there to break it down.
A better moment, in the dark annals of Pryor willingly setting things aflame, is the time when he participated in the 1977 Hollywood Bowl event “A Star Spangled Night for Rights,” a benefit for a gay rights being headlined by Pryor, Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin and War. The celeb-filled evening was marked by Pryor coming onto the stage and telling the crowd “When the n—— was burning down Watts, you motherfuckers was doing you wanted to do on Hollywood Boulevard and didn’t give a shit about it. And kiss my happy rich black ass.” The film plays the audio of this event, including the crowd’s boos, with some interviewees talking about the near-riot that followed and others, like collaborator Paul Mooney, saying “it was the truth, and the truth defends itself.” That inability to censor himself or conform to fit his surrounding, along with his fears about losing his edge, crop up again and again in the film as it traces the course of Pryor’s career, from the sweet Las Vegas gig he imploded in 1967 after realizing he just wasn’t using his own voice to his showdown with NBC over the quickly canceled “The Richard Pryor Show.”
“Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic” runs through all of these beats, through Pryor’s many marriages and his deterioration due to and eventual death from multiple sclerosis. And for any fan of Pryor’s, there’s still plenty of interest to be found in the archival footage, though there are many other testimonials one longs for when watching the film unfold — like Pam Grier, who was jilted by Pryor so abruptly when he married someone else that one talking head speaks of accidentally buying a cake that said “Congratulations Richard and Pam,” or Eddie Murphy, who adored Pryor but who clashed with him over who would get top billing in “Harlem Nights,” which Murphy wrote and directed. Watching the film, one starts to feel like there need to be two movies — one about Pryor and everyone who worked with him, and the other about his legacy, which continues to grow in the years after his death. This film doesn’t really satisfy on either account — merely whets the appetite for more.
Criticwire grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic” heads to Showtime on Friday, May 31 as the second film in the network’s new doc series Sho Focus (following R.J. Cutler’s “The World According To Dick Cheney”). There’s enough to it to be of interest to casual Pryor fans, but it could use a lot more of the edge its subject so valued.