Little Richard (2000; Robert Townsend)
By Daniel Barnes
*NOTE: This review was originally published on The Barnesyard in 2006.
“Gentile, Quasi-Inspiring Treatment”
Hollywood biopics are less filmed biographies than they are hagiographies. There is an assumption that every story should be “inspiring”, even if the subject is not. In the TV movie Little Richard, the great rock-and-roll pioneer/scripture-quoting orgyist has his edges sanded down so severely he’s pretty much an effete, piano-playing neuter. We get some rock-and-roll, a tiny bit of scriptures, and no orgies whatsoever.
The movie was executive-produced by Little Richard, which may explain the soft bulbs in the spotlight. Over-involvement by the subject and/or their families accounts for the gentile, quasi-inspiring treatment of most modern biopics. However, the idea that the story of a poor kid overcoming the odds to reach super-stardom and spiritual fulfillment is more entertaining than watching Little Richard act like an egotistical, salvation-minded, lunatic-pervert for 90 minutes is a fallacy of the highest order.
“An Extended Cliché”
One-named actor Leon plays The Quasar, and although he looks a bit like Little Richard, his mannerisms suggest he’s playing a stock homosexual caricature in an “In Living Color” sketch. The film touches the bases of Richard’s life up through the late 1950s. We get glimpses of his impoverished childhood, his uncommon sexual leanings, his murdered moonshiner father, his musical apprenticeship, his eventual stardom and subsequent relapse into religion. That said, the film gives little indication of his character and the forces that drove Little Richard.
When you take the bisexuality, the pimping, the complicated racial aspects (he felt betrayed and cheated by the white musical establishment, yet his music was always more popular with whites than blacks), and the orgies out of Little Richard’s life, his story is reduced to an extended cliché, and a poorly shot one at that.
As in Walk the Line, the censored gaps are filled with concert performances (Leon lip-syncs). The Quasar’s live shows were legendary, but Townsend shoots them with all the electric energy and excitement of a Madison, Wisconsin dinner theater production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe. My favorite scene showed a pre-fame Little Richard scraping by as a dishwasher. He’s asked to take out the trash, and lugs what appears to be an empty can out to the curb. The production wasn’t budgeted for GARBAGE; ironic, since so much of it made it onscreen, masquerading as Little Richard’s life.