You might think a film about the flamboyant Little Richard would have it all: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. And a film that wasn't produced by the star himself probably would.
But NBC's "Little Richard," which airs tomorrow night, has been sanitized to the point where you can hardly even make sense of the story, let alone the leading man. In fact, I am not overstating the case when I say the film is actually trying to sell us Little Richard as a holy man, such as, say, the Dalai Lama. Watch if you must, but don't say I didn't warn you.
The confusion starts at the very beginning of the film with Richard Penniman as a child being dressed in girls' clothing by his older sisters only to be beaten by his father (Carl Lumbly) for walking around in lipstick, high heels and dresses.
In one scene, his father drags the child, dressed in girls' clothing, through the center of town and then throws him into a boxing ring with a much larger boy who pummels him. It seems far more likely to be something Little Richard dreamed rather than actually experienced. But if Little Richard says this is the way it was, and he's the executive producer, what are you going to do except treat it as if it were fact?
The oddest aspect about Richard's cross-dressing is a central story line involving the relationship between Little Richard and a woman named Lucille (Tamala Jones), whom the NBC press material describes as "one of Richard's closet friends." They are together through most of the film, but near the end she asks Richard to marry her, and he says he can't, and this is supposed to break our hearts.
We get sad songs and dialogue suggesting the love of Richard's life has left him. But we don't know why he can't marry her and why she has to leave, since the film is totally nuts in its depiction of his gender and sexual identity issues.
Memo to Richard: You could have probably done some social good by being clear about your sexual orientation. But, if you didn't want to be honest about it, you shouldn't have made a film about your life.
Memo to NBC executives: What the heck were you thinking about letting him get away with this?
Leon, who lit up the screen as David Ruffin in NBC's mini-series about the Temptations singing group, does about the best he can with the material he's given, but even he seems confused about who he's supposed to be whenever the film turns to matters of sex.
His best moments are onstage, but there is something surprisingly flat about the music. And that's even with Little Richard actually doing the singing! Only once or twice does it come close to reminding me of the magical jolt of joy I felt the first time I heard Little Richard in the late 1950s.
In the end, what makes the film most maddening is the real Little Richard is something to behold.
At a press conference last month to promote the film, he responded to a question about his current status by saying, "I'm still here and, thank God, looking decent. I'm almost 70 years old and still screaming like a white woman."
I wish director Robert Townsend had gotten even a little of that Little Richard onscreen.
What: "Little Richard"
When: Tomorrow night 9 to 11
Where: WBAL (Channel 11)
In brief: A rock 'n' roll original sanitized to death