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Prime-time flamboyance: NBC sanitizes Little Richard's story. Like it had a choice
by Larry Katz

Thursday, February 17, 2000

Little Richard's life story has more than enough wildness and weirdness to make one heckuva movie.

Too much wildness and weirdness for a made-for-TV movie shown by a major network. Or so you'd guess. After all, the story of a fast-living singer with a taste for both men and women and for women's clothes and makeup doesn't exactly qualify as prime-time family-viewing fare.

So give credit to NBC-TV for giving the green light to ``Little Richard,'' a subtly sanitized biography of the underappreciated rock 'n' roll legend that airs Sunday night, Feb 20th, at 9pm on WHDH (Ch. 7).

Substituting innuendo for candor, this is a depiction of a (presumably) bisexual entertainer rendered in a manner that won't upset anyone but the most virulent homophobe. More importantly, it's a well-acted, musically thrilling and rare look at the rock 'n' roll era from a black perspective.

``Little Richard'' was directed by actor Robert Townsend, who looked back at the early days of rock 'n' roll previously in the fictional film ``The Five Heartbeats.'' Recognizable names among the appealing cast include ``Saturday Night Live'' alumnus Garrett Morris as the minister in Richard's childhood church and rap star Warren G. and former Temptation Ali Ollie Woodson as members of Richard's band, the Upsetters.

Fresh from playing David Ruffin in the TV bio of the Temptations, Leon - that's his whole name - has the nearly impossible task of playing the outrageously flamboyant Little Richard Penniman without chewing the scenery. No actor alive could duplicate Richard's manic energy without lapsing into ludicrous caricature.

Wisely, Leon opts for a subtle approach, at least by Little Richard standards. If he doesn't fully capture Richard's goggle-eyed intensity, he does make him believable, a conflicted human being trying to balance his blossoming career with his family, religious convictions and unusual sexual predilections.

``Little Richard'' frames its story as a struggle between sin and salvation. ``You've got to worship God or Satan,'' Richard says in the opening. ``That's the choice.''

But Richard has the devil in him - or so his family thinks. He's shown playing dress-up in his mother's clothes while growing up in Macon, Ga., in the early '40s. His mother (Jenifer Lewis) is understanding, but his hard-case father (Carl Lumbly) is distressed and eventually drives Richard from home.

The fledgling performer finds a succession of show business jobs, starting with a stint performing in drag in Sugarfoot Sam's Vaudeville Show. ``Little Richard'' hits an early peak with these lovingly re-created scenes of the black entertainment world in the Deep South, which culminate with Richard's arrival in New Orleans for his first recording session.

It isn't long before some playful jiving on the piano leads to the creation of Richard's breakthrough hit, ``Tutti Frutti.'' Not only is he a success, he wins the long-sought approval of his father.

Predictably, tragedy strikes his family, which causes Richard to suddenly develop ESP and director Townsend to needlessly move the production into ``The Twilight Zone.'' Or maybe it's his ill-considered bid to compete with ``The X-Files.''

``Little Richard'' gets back on track quickly when the singer is confronted by a new set of problems. Just as he and his music begin blazing across America like a comet, he's undercut by the unexpected arrival of Pat Boone singing woeful, white-bread versions of his songs. Plus Richard has inner demons to face: a rapidly growing ego and those unusual sexual proclivities.

Richard's uncertain sexuality is noted with a wink and a leer. The innocent can accept his relationship with his gorgeous girlfriend Lucille (Tamala Jones) at face value and choose to see a man with a wandering eye and a woman yearning for marriage. The more knowing will take the broad hints offered and see Richard as a homosexual, transvestite and voyeur using his so-called girlfriend as a beard.

Either way, Richard inevitably reaches an early career crisis point. He retires in 1957 and returns to the church, which sets the stage for his 1962 comeback and a feel-good close.

``Little Richard'' was made with the approval of the now-67-year-old Richard, who is credited as its executive producer. But in interviews he's complained about the accuracy of the script and its inferences about a gay sex life he already has admitted to in his own autobiography. Go figure.

But if ``Little Richard'' fudges a few facts and tells more than its subject wants revealed at the moment, more importantly it highlights Richard's role as ``the architect of rock 'n' roll'' - without his blueprint to follow, Elvis wouldn't have had a kingdom. And if it shows him battling problems common to the standard-issue Hollywood celebrity biopic, it also serves as a thoroughly enjoyable reminder that America's greatest artists often start out as outcasts.

Visit the NBC page on the Little Richard movie.

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