Many contemporary comedians cite Richard Pryor as the biggest influence on their own material and career, particularly Eddie Murphy who modelled a lot of his key characters on Pryor’s persona. In a film career lasting nearly four decades, his work encompassed concert films, ensemble pieces and star vehicles.
He was at times both independent and a pioneer and Hollywood probably didn’t know quite what to do with him. His teamings with Gene Wilder, Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) are the fondest memories for all fans of the comedian’s work. The downside came with Superman III (1983), in which his salary and his starring role overshadowed the essence of what the franchise represented, an after-effect that has hindered the character on the big-screen to this day.
Fabulous Films, licensing four of Universal’s back catalogue, add something to the debate with Car Wash (1976), Which Way Is Up? (1977), The Wiz (1978) and Brewster’s Millions (1985). It’s an interesting collection and Which Way Is Up? Is one film that is a cult favourite amongst bona-fide Pryor fans, in which he plays three different roles, a key influence on Eddie Murphy’s multi-role turns in Coming To America (1988) and The Nutty Professor (1996).
Which Way Is Up? Sees Pryor playing a hapless employee who ends up falling into a union action in error and gets laid off, before going off to LA to find work to provide for his family, but not before a number of relationship complications set in.
Car Wash and The Wiz are more ensemble pieces than star vehicles for Pryor. Both scripted by Joel Schumacher and the latter based on the play of the same name and The Wizard Of Oz (directed by Sidney Lumet and with make-up by Stan Winston), they are affectionate tales of a day in a car wash and a hugely energetic musical which is more about the talents of Diana Ross and Michael Jackson as Dorothy and The Scarecrow.
Brewster’s Millions (1985) will have a lot of cross-over appeal, not only to fans of Pryor, but also John Candy and director Walter Hill, more associated with action fare like The Warriors (1979) and 48 Hrs. (1982). In the context of it’s mid-1980s release, It clearly seemed to be a calculated move to try and repeat the success of Trading Places (1983), repeating the template laid by Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in a like-minded tale of financial and spiritual wealth. It has its moments, but isn’t as laugh-out-loud as some of the other comedies of that decade.
The big disappointment with this collection is that Fabulous have not included another Universal title from the 1970s, Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978), the gritty assembly line drama that Pryor co-starred with Harvey Keitel. Given this is a comedy box set, perhaps that might have made it an anomaly amongst the others, but it would certainly be a worthy addition. Richard Pryor – Live In Concert (1979) would have also wrapped it up nicely.
Still, Pryor fans have much to celebrate here, so let’s embrace another excellent release.
THE RICHARD PRYOR COLLECTION / CERT: 15 / DIRECTORS: MICHAEL SCHULTZ, SIDNEY LUMET, WALTER HILL / SCREENPLAY: CARL GOTTLIEB, CECIL BROWN, JOEL SCHUMACHER, TIMOTHY HARRIS, HERSCHEL WEINGROD / STARRING: RICHARD PRYOR, LUNETTE MCKEE, FRANKLIN AJAYE, DIANA ROSS, MICHAEL JACKSON, JOHN CANDY / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW