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Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Beyond the Canon: Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling + All That Jazz

Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986) + All That Jazz (1979)

It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white, male auteur. Beyond the Canon is a monthly series that seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion. This month’s double feature pairs Richard Pryor’s Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986) with Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979).

By Christina Newland

“He tore his ass on the freeway of life,” says Richard Pryor, to peals of laughter from an audience. This is his eulogy to himself, delivered onstage in Pryor’s own inimitable fashion, and the last scene of the only film he ever directed: Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling.

It was 1986. Six years earlier, Pryor was nearly killed in an accidental explosion at his home caused by freebasing cocaine. He suffered second and third-degree burns. His directorial debut features the life story of a comedian (Jo Jo) who does exactly the same thing, and is played by Pryor himself, in case the mirroring was somehow unclear. Jo Jo is raised in a whorehouse in Ohio and grows up to find nationwide acclaim in stand-up comedy, but is unable to shake the existential wound of his upbringing. As Jo Jo lies on a hospital gurney fighting for his life, his “alter ego” guides him on a journey through the major events of his past.

Richard Pryor in Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986). Courtesy of Sony Picture Classics 

The lacerating effects of show business—both on the ego and the soul—are common ground in Jo Jo Dancer and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979). In both films, the makers look back on their glitzy lives from the perch of their mortality. They see the gnawing, nihilistic emptiness within. Bob Fosse was another famous maverick of the ‘70s, though his sector of show-biz was very different from Pryor’s. His avatar in All That Jazz is played by Roy Scheider, a chain-smoking theatre director named Joe Gideon. Gideon is struggling to balance editing a film with staging a Broadway musical, tortured by addiction and his revolving door of lovers.

In both films, there’s a smorgasbord of substances on offer: dexedrine, methamphetamine, cocaine, and alcohol are maybe the most consistent parts of these men’s celebrity lives. With all their career twists, dalliances and divorces, they lean heavily on their addictions, and often those addictions lean back on them. Gideon suffers from angina and ignores impending risks to his health—until he collapses and undergoes open-heart surgery.

Cathartic and sparklingly unreal, All That Jazz features a ghostly Dickensian figure that guides Gideon through the twilight between life and death, but unlike Jo Jo Dancer, Gideon's ghost is not a version of himself. Pryor’s alter-ego is happy to tell him when he’s being an asshole. But for Fosse, this figure is Jessica Lange, a sexy angel of death. She never calls him an asshole. In both movies, the male ego is omnipresent, bolstered by severe insecurity and a rotating display of female flesh—dancers, models, and the like. There’s some degree of self-awareness on both filmmakers’ parts, showing some shame about their treatment of women, but just how reconciliatory their tones are is questionable. Given Fosse’s own well-documented bad behavior towards women in real life, it’s interesting that even his version of self-reckoning involves a fantasy woman.

Roy Scheider and Jessica Lang, as the angel of death, in All That Jazz (1979). Courtesy of 20th Century Fox/Photofest 
If All That Jazz is a hedonistic, sinuously sexy musical, Jo Jo Dancer is less overtly polished or constructed. But it nonetheless reveals a fascination with the act of performance and being onstage, particularly given Jo Jo’s past as a neglected child. There’s a yearning to be adored that can never be fully satisfied, and satisfaction must be found elsewhere. In one memorable scene in Jo Jo Dancer, Pryor sits in a luxurious bathroom smoking crack. He gets a phone call. “Alicia, I stopped doing dope,” he says. “Honest, I stopped. Five minutes ago.”

Jo Jo Dancer is an audacious project, if perhaps more in its striking honesty than its execution. If it’s not well-remembered in Pryor’s remarkable body of work, it’s likely because it’s considerably more serious than most of the other films he was best known for. By the late 1980’s, he was no longer quite the same mega-star as he had been in the decade previous, and making a strange, earnest autobiographical movie about setting himself on fire was perhaps not too welcome. Critics like Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby were lukewarm at the time, with Canby calling it “schmaltzy.” Kael wrote that when Pryor was, “trying to be sincere, he’s less than himself.” It’s an interesting remark, given that Pryor seems sincere in basically all of his stand-up: his painful upbringing and the wounds of his life are the very stuff of his hyper-expressive comedy. Pryor and Fosse both grapple with the unique pain of the addict-performer, as beholden to the stage as to the substance. Only one of them imagines any hope for the future.

Join us for Beyond the Canon on Sat, May 18 at 2pm

Christina Newland is a writer on film and culture with bylines at The Guardian, Sight & Sound Magazine, BFI, VICE, and others. She loves boxing flicks and '70s Hollywood. She is also editing an upcoming anthology due for publication in early 2020, She Found it at the Movies: Women Writers on Sex, Desire, & Cinema. @christinalefou

Upcoming Beyond the Canon screenings:

Sat, Jun 29 at 4:30pm
Touki Bouki
Djibril Diop Mambety
1973, 85min
Jean-Luc Godard
1960, 90min
© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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