Recently I finished reading Furious Cool, a breezy yet reflective take on the life of Richard Pryor. Rather than present Pryor as merely a pioneering stand-up comic, authors David and Joe Henry position Pryor as a transcendent black entertainer, an essential link from the segregated time of the chitlin' circuit to today's world.
Pryor, the book asserts, was born from a rich tradition, a hidden culture that informed many civil-rights leaders in overt and subtle ways. Later, as he entered the mainstream, his struggles with his identity as a black public figure -- and what it means to "sell out" -- drove his self-destruction and hinted at larger problems for African Americans assimilating into an unfair, flawed society.
I thought of Pryor (the tormented artist coping with his celebrity by freebasing cocaine) while watching Top Five, the latest directorial effort from Chris Rock. As a comic and social commentator, Rock is perhaps the rightful heir to Pryor; indeed, his troubled filmography parallels Pryor's own spotty, sometimes embarrassing cinematic contributions. Rock has seemingly avoided Pryor's dark personal legacy, whose best work was behind him by the time he entered his early 40s. With Top Five he finally eclipses Pryor, at least as a filmmaker.
Rock is 49. In a recent interview he spoke fondly of aspiring to a James Taylor-type career, meaning working mainly during the summer and reserving the majority of the year for family and life outside the public view. (Referencing Taylor may be ironic for a comedian known for his Pryor-like stand-up bit "Niggaz vs. Black People.") This sense of perspective, and a playful rejection of convention, lurks just under the surface in Top Five, which debates issues of race, success and love in a way Pryor might have had he not been derailed by addiction and illness.
Pryor's legacy -- his brilliance, his contradictions and ultimate tragedy -- lingers in the shadows of Top Five. He is referenced outright by Rock's character Andre Allen during a conversation about comedy's greats. Allen admires his honesty. (In the same breath he applauds recent media lightning rod Bill Cosby for his mastery of storytelling. The film was made during the summer of 2013, long before Cosby's name became controversial.) But the allusions to Pryor go deeper. Like the real-life comedian, Allen is frozen by self-doubt. He believes his comedic gifts to be tied to drug and alcohol dependence and has turned to making mediocre blockbusters.
Pryor made the abysmal The Toy and Superman III during his middle age. For Allen it's the popular Hammy series, featuring a degrading character not unlike Martin Lawrence's Big Momma, or Rock himself parading around in films like Madagascar. While Top Five is messy in its storytelling at times, the world of the film is contemporary and has a lived-in quality that gives the Allen's plight and his search for purpose true resonance. It's as if Rock were acting out the trajectory of a comedian like Pryor in Hollywood and made small changes, correcting the lonelier aspects of his path.
In one scene Allen jokes that the only legitimate reasons to break up with someone are either infidelity or abuse. It's a startling aside -- one not warmly received by the character played by a charming Rosario Dawson -- but it's the kind of belief that would not have been out of place in one of Pryor's routines about relationships. (He openly admitted to mistreating women throughout his life.) In another scene he jokes about not being able to hail a cab in Manhattan; a taxi then stops at that precise moment, Rock updating a common brand of racial humor. Cabs may stop in 2014 -- a signal of progress -- but issues continue.
Later, when Allen finds catharsis on stage, his natural ability and effortless delivery evokes Pryor's own knack for recovering from personal trauma the only way he knew how: by performing in front of an audience. But Allen (and Rock?) is able to find professional satisfaction, and personal happiness, in ways that always eluded Pryor.
Of course, Allen is as much a reflection of Chris Rock and his own ruminations on fame as he is a mirror of Pryor. The films succeeds as a kind of superior, more lighthearted version of Pryor's autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. At the same time Rock's influences are obvious: The film is meant as a more urban, raucous version of Linklater's Before series, or typical Woody Allen, or maybe a more accessible version of Rock collaborator Louis CK's FX series Louie. The result is a bit mixed, tonally, but nevertheless represents a remarkable step forward for Rock as a filmmaker. In an age where most adult fare feels like strategically packaged Oscar bait, Top Five exists in an honest and often hilarious place. We need more films like it.
One final note: Richard Pryor's career featured several attempts to promote more black voices in film and encourage the work of African0American filmmakers. Top Five is a true embodiment of that dream, having been conceived by some of America's most prominent black entertainers. Besides Rock's multiple roles, the music of Top Five was done by Questlove, of the legendary band The Roots. And the cast is perhaps one of film's greatest assemblage of black comics ever. The film was co-produced by rappers Kanye West and Jay Z, who is often chided for his passive role in bettering the lives of black Americans. (Speaking of West and Jigga, the film is kind of cousin to the themes they explored on Watch the Throne, whose "Niggas in Paris" is the film's unofficial anthem. I love how Rock engages with hip-hop throughout Top Five, perhaps a spiritual hat tip to CB4.)
Rather than drape itself in Important Messaging, Top Five works best when it casually depicts its characters as they are: existing, conversing. It's daring at times and has a sense of what's possible in a way not unlike Pryor's groundbreaking sketch work on NBC. It may be sexier to talk about Selma today or bang the drum for more female auteurs; that's fine. Still, Top Five has a definitive voice and truly gets its place in the world. Its first scene features a conversation about what it means to live in a supposedly post-racial, post-Obama America. By the end it's evoking Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, but not before completing its amusing glimpse at the lives of Americans living in that world.
Pryor would be proud.