Saturday, January 24, 2015
Book Review: BECOMING RICHARD PRYOR
HARPCOLLINS – @HarperCollins
AUTHOR: Scott Saul
ISBN: 978-0-06-212330-5; hardcover (December 9, 2014)
608pp, B&W, $27.99 U.S.
Richard Pryor (1940 to 2005) was an American comedian, actor, writer, and filmmaker. He was best known for his work as a stage comic or stand-up comedian. Actor and comedian Bob Newhart once called Pryor “the seminal comedian of the last 50 years.”
Becoming Richard Pryor is a biography of Pryor, written by Scott Saul. Saul, an associate professor of English at the University of California–Berkeley, is the author of Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties. Saul has also written for Harper's Magazine, the New York Times, and the Nation, among other publications.
In the “Author's Note” to his book, Saul says that “Pryor revolutionized American comedy with his improvisational approach, his frank talk about sex and race, and the new psychological depth that he brought to the stage.” One of the groundbreaking things about Pryor's comedy was that it was often autobiographical; the genius and complexities of his act was born from the story of his life.
Saul says that “For all his openness about his life onstage, he [Pryor] was guarded about the facts of it offstage.” Pryor was standoffish with reporters, and, according to Saul, both Pryor and his elder relatives did what they could to make things difficult for people seeking to write biographies of Pryor.
Saul also describes how Becoming Richard Pryor is different from previous biographies and biographical efforts concerning Pryor. First, Richard and the elder Pryor were dead by the time Saul began his research for this book in 2007. [Pyror died in 2006.] Also, the younger Pryor relatives were willing to share memories, pictures, papers, and other documentations with Saul. Secondly, Saul says that he approached Pryor as a “historical figure,” so he used a “historian's tools” like research paperwork, and official documents to reconstruct Pryor's life so that he could “unpack its meaning.” Saul writes that by working like a historian, he was able to follow Pryor's life from month to month, and, in some instances, even day to day.
Thirdly, and finally, Saul says Becoming Richard Pryor is different because its aim is to “... trace, meticulously, Pryor's evolution as an artist.” Saul traces this evolution up to the point of the release of Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979), which may be the most celebrated, if not greatest stand-up comedy performance and comedy concert film of all time. Saul is right: Live in Concert (by influence, inspiration, and homage) may have created more stand-up comics (both good and bad) than any other film in history.
So how is Becoming Richard Pryor? Is it any good. Is it interesting? I am reluctant to call Becoming Richard Pryor “fascinating,” as that word seems inadequate to describe either Saul's book or his subject, Richard Pryor. I know it sounds crazy considering that Becoming Richard Pryor is built on so many words – over 600 pages densely packed with words, but words don't really describe this book. Becoming Richard Pryor has to be experienced directly by a reader, to be read in order to truly understand the depth of detail by which Saul tells the story of Pryor.
In fact, the story begins decades before Pryor was born (as Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor on December 1, 1940), so that Saul can talk about Pryor's beloved paternal grandmother, His “Mama,” Maria Carter Bryant – later Maria Pryor. Saul also goes into details about Pyror's relatives' lives before Pryor was born in 1940. Later, Saul takes us through a journey of Pryor growing up and becoming a budding performer as a child. Then, he takes us through Pryor's travels as his learned, gathered, and constantly evolved.
It is a long journey to Richard Pryor: Live in Concert. As big as this book, it is shocking to consider that Saul does not follow Pyror's life and career into the 1980s, when he experienced his greatest financial success as a film actor and movie star. The 1980s also marked the beginning of Pryor's battle with multiple sclerosis (MS). That battle along with Pryor's death on December 20, 2005 are discussed in the book's epilogue.
I am glad Scott Saul used the epilogue to discuss that last quarter century of Pryor's life. What Saul presents is so grand in scope and so intimately and realistically detailed that I don't think I could read much more. Becoming Richard Pryor is a great Hollywood biography and a masterfully work of history about an important figure in American arts and culture.
Is Becoming Richard Pryor a must read? Well, as Pryor himself might say, “Hell yeah, m**********r! So fans and students of American comedy, of American film, and of African-American arts and entertainment must read Becoming Richard Pryor.
Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux
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