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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson: Tutti Frutti Man In Cannes

Little Richard

R&B, ROCK & GOSPEL legend Little Richard left us this month.  You can spend some time listening to him or even looking at him on film.

There’s a wonderful scene in Get On Up, director Tate Taylor’s 2014 biopic of James Brown, as played by Chadwick Boseman, when Brown crosses the orbit of this live wire, Little Richard, somewhere down South.

Born as Richard Penniman in Georgia in December 1932, one of 12 children, and only 6 months older than Brown, Little Richard has the music thing going better than does Brown, a serious and sober young guy and pretty aware that by white standards he’s an outlaw.

In fact, Little Richard’s got a whole lot going on that Brown tries to process about what’s real and what’s show. Brown takes in the whole of actor Brandon Smith as Little Richard: hair that looks like a Buckingham Palace guard’s bear hat; whatever all the genders are he is them; the now legendary pancake makeup and eye liner; that black demi-ring of fur on his upper lip; and the kind of energy that went into the lyrics of Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally and ultimately Good Golly Miss Molly, that white legions of decency just knew in their bones were a new kind of pied piper’s call to their children to be resisted at all costs. In Congress, if needs be.

Somewhere in the tumbling tumbleweed of this global timeout we’re having, I didn’t realize Little Richard was still alive, when news of his death in Tennessee from bone cancer interrupted the corona virus Trumpathon of last Saturday, May 9. Imagine that, Little Richard dead! Alive! And now dead!

Since there is nothing coming to a theatre near you any time soon, and there are many strategies for what to watch instead at home, you might as well pursue the elusive ghost of Little Richard for a night. He’s kind of a go-to guy on a couple hundred soundtracks, the last of which was at Sundance this year, titled The Last Thing He Wanted, a pretty mediocre Dee Rees workup of a book by Joan Didion about a tough woman journalist in El Salvador. You can judge for yourself on Netflix.

Aside from the screen time and the paycheck, Little Richard was not well used in film, but he appears in two unlikely Arnold Schwarzenegger films Predator and The Last Action Hero, which flopped at Cannes so badly that American studios avoided the place for years.

Little Richard also shows up as a character, Orvis Goodnight, in Paul Mazursky’s funny 1986 Down and Out in Beverly Hills, on Cinemax through Amazon Prime. And again in Mazursky’s 1993 flop, The Pickle. Danny Aiello is a failing film director, whose agent, Jerry Stiller, who also died this week, has gotten him a gig directing the worst film of all time called The Pickle: White kids from Kansas take vegetables on a mission to a planet that only eats beef. Little Richard is the President of the where’s-the-beef planet in a pickle with only 6 months to live. It’s on Amazon Prime, too.

Normally for the past 30-some years, this weekend I’d be reporting from the Cannes Film Festival, which cancelled this year, rather than tried to mount a virtual festival, since Cannes in its DNA it is opposed to online streaming. And Spike Lee, who was set to be the first black president of the Jury at Cannes, a competition he’s complained about not winning in the past, gets short-changed again. All it took this time was a complete breakdown of civilization.

Some of the big titles that won’t be red carpet galas this year include:

Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a Searchlight film about a fictional French literary journal with Tilda Swinton and Billy Murray, Lea Seydoux, Benicio Del Toro, Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand. 

Benedetta, directed by Paul Verhoeven, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, a summer sci-fi blockbuster, Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks, with Rashida Jones and Bill Murray set loose in New York, Let Them All Talk shot on the QE2 during a trans-Atlantic crossing with Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest, directed by Steven Soderberg, who won the Palme D’Or at 26 with Sex lies and videotape and earned his career.

Nomadland, the third feature by Chloé Zhao, who blew me away in 2017 with one of the best films of the year, The Rider, which you can catch up on Starz by way of Amazon. Nomadland is a western / road movie with Frances McDormand and David Strathairn.

Tre Piani, Three Floors, is about three families living on top of one another in an apartment building, directed by Italian writer-director-and theatre owner, Nanni Moretti, who won the Palme d’Or in 2001 for The Son’s Room, one of the most gut-wrenching films about parenthood I’ve ever seen. It’s available on Amazon.

On the front page of The NY Times this past Wednesday is a story about a Palestinian neurosurgeon, who at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem operated on an Orthodox Jewish settler’s foot, shattered in 2002 after stepping on a land mine on a school trip. Now a young man in chronic pain, his mother had lost family in the Holocaust. The Palestinian surgeon became a doctor to heal his own father. For the operation on the Orthodox settler, he needed an illustrated anatomy atlas compiled by the Nazi head of the medical school in Vienna in the 1930s which he’d brought home after medical school in St. Louis. File that story under Unpredictable, Ironic and Sublime Future Films, along with some of the Cannes 2020 lineup, sure to make their way to a screen near you, I hope, or on one in your home.

Stay safe. 

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.