Rock pioneer Richard Penniman known to the world as the flamboyant Little Richard deserves better than this hemming-and-hawing TV biography; it’s the dramatic equivalent of a cover version rather than the original. Smack dab in the middle of a 1957 tour of Australia, Little Richard (Leon Robinson) decides to quit show business. To the shock of his family and entourage, he can't shake the feeling that God is calling him to a higher vocation. As this film travels back and forth in time, we witness Richard’s far-from-idyllic childhood as the son of sharecropper Bud Penniman (Carl Lumbly), who couldn't abide his son's effeminacy. Although an embarrassment to his father, young Richard's mother (Jenifer Lewis) doted on him and he found solace singing gospel music in church. After running away to Atlanta, Richard quickly graduates from kitchen work to plunking a vaudeville piano. Backed up by a local band, Little Richard starts performing and enjoys his first taste of recording success. Then, just as his father grudgingly accepts his son for his talent, he dies while defending Richard's name against homophobic insinuations. More ambitious than ever, Little Richard exchanges his sympathetic back-up band for more talented players, even though they also denigrate his manhood. Achieving mainstream fame with such recordings as "Tutti Fruiti" and "Long Tall Sally" (not to mention the hit 1956 movie THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT), he never entirely resists the lure of ministering through music. Although Little Richard raises the rafters for Jesus, the secular performing bug always reclaims him. Lanky Leon Robinson doesn't look much like Little Richard and shakes, rattles, and rolls to little avail. Director Robert Townsend pays lip service to Penniman's sexuality and turns an Bill Kerby and Daniel Taplitz's already neutered screenplay into something more in tune with a biography of Pat Boone.
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