It’s an unenviable task, putting together a documentary about a stand-up comedian. The best ones transcend the form and become storytellers; in the case of “Richard Pryor: Omit The Logic,” offering only brief snippets of Pryor’s bits is like doing a Michael Jackson doc and only playing a few bars of “Thriller” and “Billie Jean.” Maybe a better example would be a documentary that only showed Babe Ruth hitting home runs: what defined Pryor has been lost to the years due to a late-career tumble that reduced him to a content trailblazer, dropping “f” bombs in polite company as if he was just a vulgarian, not a cultural troubadour.
So you can forgive “Richard Pryor: Omit The Logic” from not delivering on several levels. Maybe ninety minutes just isn’t enough time to cover the multi-faceted career of the legendary funnyman, which is why ‘Omit The Logic’ careens from one section of Pryor’s life to another as if in a rush to cover certain biographical touchstones in the typical rise-and-fall manner. The one attempt to buck this is in leading with the tragic suicide attempt that left Pryor miraculously alive despite self-immolation. However, once the chronology rewinds and we pace ourselves through the Pryor story until that moment, we receive no added insight as to why he would do that or how he recovered. It’s the equivalent of beginning your action movie with a burst of violence before rewinding earlier, simply to keep the audience awake during first-act setup.
This doc certainly doesn’t skimp on the celebrity voices, earning an audience with a series of big names. But the subject remains unreadable, which is a problem that director Marina Zenovich never solves. In regards to his Hollywood domination, time is wasted on Pryor’s role in the development of “Blazing Saddles,” a film he was expected to make until he inexplicably backed out until the last minute. To this day, his friends and associates remain confused as to why he got cold feet. A similar confusion centers around the dissolution of the relationship between Pryor and Pam Grier, a union that would certainly have made them the King and Queen of black cinema. It’s understandable that Grier is not on-camera in this doc, but no one seems to have figured out how Pryor could have ruined so much with Grier yet still managed seven other marriages?
What does stand out is Zenovich’s decision to spotlight a wide range of the films Pryor starred in. As a stand-up, his filmography was varied and colorful, and deserved to be commemorated as one of the industry’s most fascinating and productive movie stars. At one point, Pryor, who was never really that versatile an actor, pretty much had his choice of projects in the industry. An opportunity is missed to observe exactly how Pryor’s personality eventually permeated the films the bigger he got: lip service is paid to how he turned a bit part in “Lady Sings The Blues” into a third-billed role, but the doc brushes off Pryor’s mid-to-late eighties productions, a collection of terrible films that nonetheless bent over backwards to accommodate Pryor’s talents and insight. We don’t need a dissertation on “Superman III,” but it’s not insignificant that Pryor took on a colorblind role like “Brewster’s Millions” and made it his own.
The doc’s greatest strength is the footage of Pryor at all stages of his life, from his early years as a jittery up-and-comer to his later era as an elderly, afflicted raconteur. His multiple sclerosis struck him down as his career dissipated, but he retained that vitality well into the 1990’s before passing on in 2005, and seeing the clean-shaven freshman compared to the wrinkled legend in his trademark mustache is to see very little difference, aside from a bit of extra wisdom. Hearing some of Pryor’s best bits is also a pleasure, though at this point your best bet is to seek out the original recording instead of grabbing whatever laughs you can from Zenovich’s not-inconsiderable clips, even if they are deployed in a herky-jerky fashion.
The story of Pryor remains to be told in a truly satisfying manner, and there’s the sense that each stage of Pryor’s career is its own little film. We spend precious little time traveling to Africa with Pryor, who returned with the vow to never use the “n-word,” an unexplained resolution that seems to pander to audience’s latent liberalism rather than an actual sense of developing humanism in Pryor, illustrated further by the next sequence’s rush to get back into Pryor’s drug troubles. And even his early career seems like a story full of holes, with Pryor going from an audience-friendly standup into a performer with an edge after living on the streets of San Francisco. Chapters like these suggest future Pryor films would be more than welcome, and there’s a whole lot of fascinating ground to cover from this point on. [C]