Little Richard—born Richard Wayne Penniman—had a lot of names during his amazing career as the self-proclaimed King of Rock and Roll. He earned that title and more, and in her fresh and moving documentary “Little Richard: I am Everything” (CNN and HBO Max), Lisa Cortés gets under the glitz and glamor.
There’s much to be learned from Cortés’s film, which means you have to pay close attention and not get swept up in the musical numbers. That’s easy to write, but almost impossible to do. To that end, I had to watch the doc four times for this review.
Little Richard created the template for the rock icon, and Billy Porter highlights that claim by saying, “Sorry, y’all, it wasn’t Elvis,” which is a bonafide fact.
Cortés pushes into the complexities and heartbreaking contradictions that made Little Richard’s very existence a statement of immense political power. He was an African American artist who (for a long time) was unapologetically queer and beautifully flamboyant. In terms of Queer history, Little Richard is also a disappointment and, perhaps, a traitor. One minute, he was the very picture of homosexuality—out and proud—and in a blink, he would renounce his sexuality and healthy sexual appetite, choosing to pour himself into organized Christian religion, where he believed, at the time, that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” saying those very words on a popular talk show.
What makes Cortés’s work so exciting is that she steps boldly into this man’s contradictions and helps us understand the years (1950s and ’60s) when Little Richard was at his height. This was an almost fable-like existence, because embracing his race and sexuality was taboo on top of more taboos. White America was terrified (terrified!) that their teenagers would be negatively affected by this “race music” that was playing on radio stations to which these kids had access.
Little Richard absolutely influenced Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones with his pounding piano coupled with his sexy, raspy, hollered vocals and falsetto screams. It was like he was not afraid to literally holler at the moon, like a wolf with glitter and eyeliner.
Cortés’s choice of clips is inspiring. Highlights include clips from the 1988 Grammy Awards, where Richard, then 56, was invited to present the award for the best new artist (click here to view it). The always-vocal Richard shook up the crowd by declaring himself the winner—three times—before reprimanding the Recording Academy for not paying him his well-earned dues.
“Little Richard: I Am Everything” jump-starts with one of Richard’s television interviews, where he was about a decade into his career. Remember the time period; that’s an important part of why his story is so important.
This man was wearing a sequin-trimmed pink performance suit and a leather tiara. This was (in my opinion) an act of defiance in the face of a conservative and racist country. And he was not afraid to talk about his own beauty. Remember, to this racist white country, to be “Black” is to be ugly and to be considered less than. Here’s the beautifully brazen Little Richard declaring himself beautiful, and telling a generation how it does it, saying, “I let it all hang out. If you got it, God gave it, show it to the world.”
If you believe in guardian angels, I can only imagine that Little Richard had an entire battalion assigned to him. And it was just more than his appearance. He had an uninhibited sexual energy that whipped audiences into a frenzy. This was pre-civil rights America and I can’t help but keep highlighting this fact. This was the era in which poor Emmett Till (God bless the dead) was brutally murdered.
Cortés and her gifted editors Nyneve Minnear and Jake Hostetter did the damn thing. Yes, I have to go there. “Little Richard: I Am Everything” is the perfect example of creative connectedness. The structure might seem loose but these “eyes” never lost sight of the goal, filling the frame so lusciously that it’s hard to look away. I can only imagine what didn’t make the cut.
The filmmakers chose (in my opinion, wisely) to follow the linear chronology of Little Richard’s life. He was born in the South—Macon, Georgia—in 1932. He was part of a family with 12 children. His father was handsome; a church deacon who ran a nightclub and sold moonshine. Richard considered himself a disappointment to his family, having been born with a limp with one leg longer than the other, and one arm longer than the other. He was bullied for being himself, that is to say, for his effeminate mannerisms and his choice of fashion, wearing his mother’s jewelry and creating clothes from her curtains and bedsheets.
But what made him sparkle (like a star) was his powerful voice, which outshined the local church choir. At first, he could not play the piano. He only banged on his grandpa’s piano, annoying his family with bursts of noise.
When Richard was 15, his father kicked him out of the house. He found a makeshift home with the owners of the local bar/speakeasy that also doubled as a gay bar. Richard was deeply influenced by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the mother of rock and roll, who had the good sense to merge the African American gospel sound that rang through churches into something that could be played (and would be played) in dance halls and makeshift hole-in-the-wall clubs. Tharpe heard Richard sing while he was working at the Macon City Auditorium. He was just a teenager. She brought him on the stage.
Later, Richard would become part of what’s known as the chitlin circuit, taking the stage with many of the African American dirty blues combos that were popular in the late 1940s. Sometimes he appeared in drag and was known as Princess LaVonne. When he connected with openly gay musician Billy Wright, who wore a pompadour and makeup (as Esquerita), Richard was transfixed by his appearance and it became a part of his visual representation.
The question is floated of whether Little Richard outright stole from Wright. The LGBTQ and Queer scholars interviewed suggested that he borrowed from Wright, not stole, pointing out that historically, traveling musicians and gigs were a safe refuge for queer and gender-nonconforming performers.
Little Richard, like many creative people in the mid-1950s, was immersed in hatred. Everywhere you turned, the images were of white people, white culture, and white music. He signed a contract with Specialty Records and delivered his first big hit, the iconic song “Tutti Frutti,” which changed everything. (The first version had to be toned down, since the song was alluding to anal sex.) When the lyrics were reshaped to be radio-friendly, the mostly white independent deejays played the song into the history books so well that covers of the song were performed by Elvis and Pat Boone, who—of all people—outsold it.
Little Richard, ignorant of legal matters, signed a contract that would give him half a penny on the song’s royalties.
More hits tumbled out of the prolific creator, including “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Keep A-Knockin’,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” He was never properly compensated for his music because of poorly written contracts and shady royalty deals. Sadly, this was not uncommon at the time.
Cortés’s doc doesn’t shy away from covering his relationships with women and his five-year marriage, drug addiction, and love of orgies and sex.
Nona Hendryx made the observation that “Good Golly, Miss Molly” was about sex and maybe some people didn’t realize it, but it doesn’t take a PhD to understand what the lyrics meant underneath. Another curious observation was the wild reaction of young women to a clearly gay man of color. They threw their panties at the stage long before Elvis got the same treatment.
The doc also doesn’t shy away from Richard’s sudden conversion to Christianity. In 1957, he
declared in the middle of an Australian tour that he was leaving popular music and pouring himself into a life in the ministry.
You might wonder why he came roaring back to rock ’n’ roll in the early ’60s. It was money. He was broke, so he went on a series of European tours during which the Beatles and the Stones opened for him at various times. Those then-green performers were admittedly star-struck by him and made it clear that they learned from him.
After the death of his brother, Richard turned back to a religious life, desperately trying to live between a life immersed in the sacred and the profane. To many members of the LGBTQ+ community, that made Little Richard a traitor to the cause, unable to stand the pressure to the bitter end of what it means to live out and be proud despite the stormy weather.
African American studies professor Tavia Nyong’o, who is considered an expert on the life of Little Richard, has argued that the show-and-tell of his life in music, as much as the godliness, was all done to glorify his love of Jesus.
At the end of this wonderfully crafted documentary, we are left with an honest portrayal of a complicated man. Because of Richard, there was David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Rick James, Prince, and Harry Styles, to name just a few. The end montage shows the generational influence.
Award-winning performer Porter presses the highlighter firmly on the point: “Richard is the reason I can show up, and be who I want to be.”
10 out of 10.
The documentary will debut in theaters on April 21, 2023. Produced by Bungalow Media + Entertainment for CNN Films and HBO Max, in association with Rolling Stone Films, director Lisa Cortés’s “Little Richard: I Am Everything” was the opening night documentary at Sundance.