Little Richard (2000)
Little Richard was a contradictory character. Though he professed to have been gay all his life, he denounced homosexuality as being unnatural and contagious. This biopic, on which Little Richard received Executive Producer credit, is equally ambiguous about his sexuality. Yes, he does wear make-up and women’s clothes, act effeminate and doesn’t mind being called a sissy, but the only relationship he is depicted in is strictly heterosexual (with a touch of voyeurism on the side). This apparent hesitancy to deal openly with this and other aspects of his life lends a timidity to this biopic that fortunately evaporates whenever Little Richard takes to the stage.
Which is exactly where we find him at the start of this biopic, belting out ‘Long Tall Sally’ to his fans in Sydney Australia. An unexpected visitor mid-song has Little Richard seeing the light (literally), and the next day he announces he is quitting rock and roll, throwing a $10,000 diamond encrusted ring into the harbour. Flashback to a less affluent time, when young Richard Penniman’s father is trying to beat the sissy out of him. After embarrassing his family by singing the devil’s music in church, teenage Richard leaves home and takes to the stage, performing with such groups as Sugarfoot Sam’s Vaudeville show and the Tidy Jolly Steppers. Starting his own group, The Upsetters, Richard records a sanitised version of ‘Tutti Frutti’ and is on his way.
This biopic’s best moments come when Little Richard is behind the microphone, even when the focus is on shocked family members or an uptight Pat Boone. Having previously portrayed David Ruffin in The Temptations and Jackie Wilson in Mr. Rock 'n' Roll: The Alan Freed Story, Leon confidently recreates Little Richard’s stage act despite being much taller than the singer. But like Keefe Brasselle in The Eddie Cantor Story, he continues the eye-rolling and mugging off stage, providing only a superficial portrait of a man whose qualities ran deeper than the Pancake makeup he wore.
The end credits inform us that at the time this movie was aired Little Richard was still rocking the world. As for me, I’m off to do some diving around Sydney Harbour.
Lucille is a fictional character. In actuality, Little Richard wrote the song ‘Lucille’ about a female impersonator named Queen Sonya.
Only mention of Little Richard’s film career is a passing reference to The Girl Can’t Help It.