Given the popularity of rock-concert movies in the ’70s, it was only a matter of time before some producer tried releasing a stand-up-comedy concert movie. Luckily for audiences, the canary in this particular coalmine was Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, which captures one of the greatest comedians of all time at the height of his powers. Shot at a theater in Long Beach, California, with the simplest possible visual style—mostly just one camera tracking Pryor as he bops around the stage—the picture is 78 minutes of pure foul-mouthed pleasure. Not every bit or line kills, but the overwhelming majority of the material is at least solid, energized by Pryor’s boundless energy, imagination, style, and talent. Few comedians painted more effective word pictures or slipped as gracefully in and out of characters as Pryor did, and few have found such a perfect synthesis of medium and message. For, while Pryor’s myriad jokes and monologues about race were not overtly political, per se, it’s no accident that at one point during Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, he gives a heartfelt shout-out to audience member Huey P. Newton. Similarly, the mildly subversive nature of Pryor’s act is plainly evident during the opening moments of the concert, when he skewers white people scrambling to their seats and marvels at the novelty of a black man performing in a decidedly pale-faced municipality just north of Orange County.
Amazingly, Pryor manages to come across as endearing even when he’s at his most incendiary. In addition to making light of his then-recent arrest on drug-related charges, Pryor takes himself down a notch for moments in life when he stupidly succumbs to machismo. Yet not everything in Pryor’s act is edgy. He also gets tremendous mileage out of animal psychology, of all things, and he’s sincere—but still hilarious—while discussing the heart attack that took him out of circulation for a while in the late ’70s. All in all, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert stands as a testament to the man’s genius and honesty, even though it frankly references Pryor’s tragic penchant for self-destructive behavior. The comedian released two more concert movies, Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982) and Richard Pryor: Here and Now (1983), both of which are darker than Live in Concert. (In Live on the Sunset Strip, for instance, Pryor talks about his notorious freebasing accident.) Thanks to its brevity, consistency, and simplicity, Live in Concert is arguably the best of the batch.
Richard Pryor: Live in Concert: GROOVY