I'll say this for Little Richard. He's never boring. Neither is NBC's TV movie about his life.
As drama, "Little Richard" (9 tonight) easily surpasses "The Temptations," which also starred Leon in a leading role. Previously cast as ruff and tumble David Ruffin, Leon sashays into the role of Little Richard with energy aplenty.
Good thing, too, because he needs it to come close to capturing Little Richard's crazy-eyed look.
It's a difficult part since the real Little Richard is pretty much a caricature, but Leon brings much-needed sensitivity to Little Richard's early years. The public may see Little Richard as a screeching kook, but there's obviously more to him.
Anyone tuning into "Little Richard" will probably watch in part to get an answer to the obvious question, "What's this guy's deal?" The unstated, underlying theme being, what's up with his sexuality? "Little Richard" offers no "Ellen"-like declaration, but it's an important part of the film's subtext.
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When:9 p.m. Feb. 20 on NBC.
Starring: Leon, Garrett Morris, Carl Lumbly
"Little Richard" opens with a scene of young Richard Penniman running around in women's clothes and lipstick, much to the dismay of his father (Carl Lumbly).
"Richard's not going to grow up to be anything but an embarrassment," Dad says.
Little Little Richard is crushed by the rejection, which probably explains his own confusion, even as he grows into a music superstar.
Just when you think you've got Little Richard figured out, he's being kissed by two women, one on each cheek. But at the same time he's wearing a bra. It's a major "huh?" moment, but clarity comes later in the film.
"Little Richard" tracks the music star's life story from childhood to his religious reckoning in Australia and a subsequent European tour in 1962. When the film isn't dealing with the drama of Little Richard's personal life, it's a rollicking musical - directed with energy by Robert Townsend - with an animated Leon dancing atop pianos during concert performances.
Little Richard acquired his moniker when a promoter he toured with couldn't remember his last name. The actor who plays him in the film chose a single stage name after a similar experience.
"I did a TV movie early in my career and The Hollywood Reporter and Variety both misspelled my very normal last name, which is Robinson," Leon said last month at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif. "One called me Robins and one called me Roberts."
A friend suggested he go with "Leon."
"And I did, and now everyone knows my last name and they never get it wrong," Leon said. "They think it's privileged information."
Leon said playing David Ruffin and Little Richard provided polar opposite experiences. Rock 'n' roll was the only common denominator.
"With playing David Ruffin, it's a very smooth, very elegant kind of performance. As you noticed when I played David Ruffin, my hair didn't move," Leon said. "Little Richard's style of singing in itself is enough to just get you overworked."
And that's part of the Little Richard experience, according to the man himself.
"There's no book never been closed in my life," Little Richard said. "I've always been on the table, you know? I've never hid nothing. When everybody else was hiding, I didn't. I wore makeup when guys was afraid to wear it. I was beautiful when guys was afraid to be beautiful."
Little Richard, 67, said he wanted his life story told while he was still living so he could see the public reaction.
"I'm still here and, thank God, looking decent," he said. "I'm almost 70 years old and still screaming like a white woman."