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Good golly! Little Richard's on NBC

Little Richard (Sun. Feb 20th, 2000; 9-11 p.m., NBC)
By Phil Gallo

HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - There's no shortage of drama in any chapter of Little Richard Penniman's life, and his early years have always made for one of rock 'n' roll's great stories of triumph. The spirit that drove Little Richard, an inner struggle between the sacred and the profane, plays well in this slow-moving yet well-acted chronicle. While script emphasizes religion and family while dancing around the issues of homosexuality and drug use, it will be a wonder if NBC attracts sweeps-size ratings of "The Temptations."

There is an odd golden rule that all biopics must be told in flashback and "Little Richard" is no different. It begins in 1957 with Richard (Leon) deserting a bandstand in Australia and heading for a pier where, after seeing "signs" from God, he rejects rock 'n' roll in favor of the ministry. Flash back to Macon, Ga., in 1943, where he gets dolled up in mom's clothing and makeup along with his sisters, angering his father (Carl Lumbly) to no end.

Father Bud wants Richard to be a man and immediately takes him to the local boxing ring where he's beaten to a pulp. The stern Bud figures he doesn't have much of a fighter on his hands.

Focus quickly shifts to Muh (Jenifer Lewis) and Preacher Rainey (Garrett Morris) and the children's upbringing. They take pride in Richard joining the choir and grow alarmed when he reaches those high notes. Slowly, he gets an itch for boogie-woogie piano playing.

Evolving from country bumpkin to confident performer -- and finding the secret to success to be Pancake 31, according to mentor Billy Wright (William James Jones) -- Little Richard makes the acquaintance of Lucille (Tamala Jones) and then Bump Blackwell (Mel Jackson), the two of whom become his biggest supporters.

Rise to fame is via nightclub gigs with various bands, among them Sugarfoot Sam's Vaudeville Show and the Tidy Jolly Steppers. It's 1952 and Richard isn't fighting demons as much as he's fighting for his family's acceptance; his father reaches out to him in one of the fine, subdued moments.

His father sees his dream of owning a nightclub come to pass and he is killed there, sending Richard into a value-assessing spiral -- coinciding with his rise as a one of rock 'n' roll's first superstars.

Richard signs with Art Rupe (Michael Mantell) and his Specialty label in Los Angeles, forcing him to abandon his longtime band, the Upsetters, to use a New Orleans house band when he records. It's one of the film's nice touches that it goes into such detail and shows a faithfulness to the history books, unlike many other biopics.

Richard's high spirits are tempered by the appearance of Pat Boone (Gregory Gast) on the charts covering his "Tutti Frutti" and the realization that his songwriting royalty is a mere half-cent per record. From there, pic skims the issues that led him to the Lord -- all well documented in his biography published in the early 1980s. The man liked drugs, orgies and other men -- three facts that don't even make it into discussion in "Little Richard," making his unwillingness to marry Lucille seem off base and out of character.

Beyond the fact that Little Richard is heard here uttering the line he made famous in the 1980s -- "I am the architect of rock 'n' roll" -- story follows smooth and realistic path. Before flashing forward, it stops just as he is cast in "The Girl Can't Help It" with Jayne Mansfield, smartly avoiding a sprint to the present day.

Leon ("Cool Runnings," Jackie Wilson in NBC's marginal "Mr. Rock 'n' Roll") plays Little Richard as well as he played David Ruffin in "Temptations," avoiding the cartoon qualities and reaching for the cocksure traits that made Little Richard one of rock's great personalities.

Supporting cast is equally sharp: Jones strikes fine balance between seductress and friend; Jackson is earnest and honestly discouraged; Muh adds nuance to her role as his biggest advocate; and dad plays it stern and straight-faced.

Robert Townsend directs with unerring steadiness and is uninhibited by television's demand for quarter-hour mini dramas. This is not a show that will hold the attention of most casual viewers, but it's a welcome reprieve from overhyped and overly dramatic TV movies that have become commonplace on sweeps schedules.

Technically, the picture's a charmer: costumes are great, original recordings are used for the performers and sets nicely recapture the 1950s.

Little Richard ... Leon
Muh Penniman ..... Jenifer Lewis
Bud Penniman ..... Carl Lumbly
Lucille .......... Tamala Jones
Bump Blackwell ... Mel Jackson
Preacher Rainey .. Garrett Morris

With: Anthony Lee, Lahmard Tate, Alimi Ballard, Anthony Griffith, Jonell Kennedy, Michael Mantell, Reynaldo Rey, William James Jones, Warren G, Gregory Gast, Michael Ralph, Karen Bankhead, Robert Littman, Conroe Brooks, Ski Carr, Ali Ollie Woodson, Kenneth M. Young.

Filmed in Los Angeles by Davis Entertainment in association with Fox Television Studios. Executive producers, John Davis, J. Todd Harris, Little Richard; producer, Iain Paterson. Director, Robert Townsend; writers, Bill Kerby, Daniel Taplitz; camera, Edward J. Pei; production designer, Michael Novotny; editors, Sabrina Plisco-Morris, Marcelo Sansevieri; casting, Brain Chavane. Reuters/Variety

Visit the NBC page on the Little Richard movie.

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