Throughout history, individuals come along and make such a significant contribution to their specialty that they're said to have changed it, molded it, or become an architect of it. In the realm of music, there are so many artists that revolutionized the field that you could easily lose track. How far back does one go to list these individuals? Handel. Mozart. Is that too far back? John Cage. John Adams. Am I in the wrong genre? Louis Armstrong. Miles Davis. Buddy Holly. Elvis. Sinatra. Nirvana. Madonna?
As you know, there are so many facets to music that you could list hundreds of individuals who have changed the world of music. Buried somewhere on the list is the name Richard Wayne Penniman, better known to the world as Little Richard. An exuberantly talented musician, he did have a strong influence on the music of the 1950s, but did he really change the world of music? While my musical strength may be in the Classical realm, I also know that Little Richard really rocked in his day.
Facts of the Case
Little Richard lived a troubled childhood while growing up in Macon, Georgia. His effeminate ways greatly vexed his father, who wanted all of his sons to grow up to be strong men. At an early age, Richard ran away from home and found a new life surrounded by music. His talents were recognized by professionals in the business, and Richard went from bars to vaudeville to stage to professional recording artist in a very short span of time. He became rich and famous and showed the world a new kind of rock 'n' roll music: music that would cross the color boundary and open up new avenues of opportunity for Little Richard. But as his success grew, he found himself becoming tired of fame and fortune. He realized that he was not happy with his life, and upon a "sign from God," he retired in the '60s to devote himself to his faith. But he was a rock 'n' roll singer at heart and couldn't be kept from the stage. He came back from a brief retirement to show the world that Little Richard still had music to sing.
I like Little Richard; he's one of those people so exuberant and energetic, that I'm sure it would be immensely entertaining to meet him in person. Unfortunately, this tele-film doesn't do the man any justice. It's an exceptionally uninspired and lifeless examination of one of the most inspired and vigorous entertainers of the '50s (and beyond).
This is a made for TV movie from the February sweeps of 2002. I racked my brain trying to recall which network aired this. Fox? BET? VH-1? Lifetime? Actually, it turns out that NBC rolled this one out thinking it would be a draw during that most important time of the year. I have no idea if it succeeded.
Take a look at part of the enticing story description from the back of the packaging: "A revealing movie about the tumultuous life of Little Richard Penniman, whose groundbreaking music revolutionized rock 'n' roll. His career was rocked by his homosexuality, his fundamental beliefs and the pervasive discrimination within the music industry." Wow! That sounds like this is going to be an excellent look at his life. They greatly exaggerated. Let me tell you where things stray from the narrative:
"A revealing movie…" This is only partly true. When given two hours on TV, you really have just ninety minutes to tell your tale. While they did their best to give you a picture of where Little Richard came from and how it influenced his musical career, it's nothing more than a superficial account of some of the major high points of his life. Actually, it only covers Richard's emergence to his "retirement" in the '60s. There's a whole lot of career and background that wasn't even touched. And, what was touched was glossed over to squeeze in as much as possible in between commercial breaks. I'd call this a casual examination at best.
…"…about the tumultuous life of Little Richard Penniman…" From what I've seen in this movie, Richard's life wasn't all that rough at all. Yes, his father was very overbearing and never expressed any love for Richard, but I've seen and heard of far worse familial relations. At least Richard had the love of his mother and brothers to draw from, especially in the face of the appalling murder of his father. Yes, there were some bumps along the road to his eventual success, yet they are merely mentioned and don't come across as any significant hurdles. In fact, the most tumultuous event of his career seems to be the "whitening" of his music. As a black musician, white radio stations would not play his original recordings. Hence, a good white musician like Pat Boone would cover Richard's music. In perhaps the best scene of the movie, you're shown how Little Richard infused his latest recording with so much rock and soul, that Pat Boone is simply too white to keep up. But aside from this little stumbling block, Richard's life looks pretty darn good from my point of view.
"His career was rocked by his homosexuality…" Little Richard is a homosexual? Are you sure? Now, I'm not trying to be facetious, but the movie is so afraid of the subject, you'd never know it was covered without reading the packaging. Yes, there are a few exceptionally subtle references—vague glances at men, Richard's affinity for makeup and glitzy clothes, and his platonic relationship with Lucille—but there's no full examination of the role his sexuality played in his life or his religion. For the entire movie, Little Richard simply comes across as flamboyant and not gay.
…"…his fundamental beliefs…" Growing up in Macon, the Penniman family is shown as extremely religious and God-fearing. Much to the dismay of his father and his pastor, Richard ends up causing "trouble" in the congregation and is banned from the church, but this doesn't stop Richard from being faithful to his religion. At his core, there's religion, but the movie rarely touches upon this until it absolutely has to. Suddenly, there's a moment when Richard believes he needs to give up his career to go back to God. While noble, there's no solid foundation for this change, and it seems to just appear to keep the movie going.
On the whole this film is very light, but that doesn't mean that it is totally without any redeeming qualities. With so much to see, the movie moves along at a pleasantly brisk pace and does have enough "fun moments" sprinkled throughout to really pull you in. As directed by Robert Townsend (Meteor Man and comedian), this tele-film is well crafted with an admirable ensemble cast. Front and center in the role of Little Richard is Leon (Oz, B*A*P*S, Cool Runnings, Cliffhanger). While he is quite capable as an actor, he is simply lacking the raw energy and outrageousness that is the essence of Little Richard. He just misses the mark in making you believe that he is Little Richard.
Truly the highpoint(s) of the movie are the occasions when it presents one of Little Richard's songs: "Long Tall Sally," "Keep a-Knockin'," "Tutti Frutti," "Lucille," and "Good Golly Miss Molly." When they're performed, the music simply energizes the movie. Even better, they aren't covers by Leon but the original recordings by Richard himself. Seeing as he's an executive producer, it seems Little Richard was willing to allow that. When you hear those songs, you do get a sense of how great and revolutionary he was during his hey-day. The movie fails to capture the energy of his music.
The transfers are quite respectable for a made-for-TV film. On the video side, the colors are accurate and vivid with rich black saturation. The only downside is a touch too much grain in the picture, but there are no other errors of note. There is only one audio choice and that's a Dolby Digital 2.0 track. It's quite good with clean dialogue. The track is at its best and really comes alive during performances of Richard's music. The subwoofer rock and the speakers give a fairly rich presentation of his toe-tapping music. My only quibble is that it would have been nice, for a film which such an emphasis on music, to have a 5.1 option.
This disc is absolutely lacking any bonus material. There's nothing besides the movie, even the "interactive menus" are static. And, shamefully, there are no subtitles. Also of note is the error in the listing of the running time. The package states it is 120 minutes while it is only 90 minutes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Everyone's life is replete with incidents that shape our lives. A superstar has a few more instances of high-profile events that helped propel them into stardom. Little Richard has an enduring popularity, due in part to both his music and his personality. Certainly a 90-minute tele-film has no chance of giving the viewer an accurate and rich portrayal of that man's life. If NBC had allowed this movie to extend to two-parts, then perhaps that time could have been used to make a truly fascinating look at one of music's original celebrities.
This movie, much like Little Richard's Sprint PCS commercial as compared to Siegfried and Roy's, is lacking. All the components are there, but they don't come together to form a truly great and inspiring look at the life of a rock 'n' roll legend. While the music really brings it all together when it's performed, there isn't enough to motivate one to watch this more than once. So, I'm sorry Mr. Penniman, but I can't recommend this disc. If you didn't catch it on NBC, then I don't think you'll feel the urge to go out and find this one in your local store. I won't. I'm far more inclined to go buy a best-of compilation of Little Richard's music first, and I suggest you to do the same.
Little Richard, the architect of rock 'n' roll is still
"rockin'" the world.
Artisan is sentenced to six months for releasing a disc without any bonus features or subtitles. The sentence is reduced to one month of community service for solid transfers and a well-crafted piece by Townsend and his crew.
A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam bam!
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