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Little Richard

Little Richard Live at the Toronto Peace Festival, 1969

(US DVD: 24 Mar 2009)

Pop music developed so quickly that a mere 10 years after he was considered a cutting-edge subversive pioneer, Little Richard was already completely passé. In 1969, when he offered this blistering 30-minute set for a Toronto festival crowd awaiting a recently post-Beatles John Lennon, the kind of blues-based stuff Little Richard relied upon was, at best, nostalgic.

Over the past four years Richard’s brand of repetitive ‘50s-era rock ’n’ roll had morphed into progressive and psychedelic rock. Bands like Cream, the Grateful Dead, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and, of course, the Beatles, had turned his fairly straightforward kinetic 12-bar pop on its head, reinvigorating the genre.

But following the immense success of what was supposed to have been a practical joke – the kitchy ‘50s revival act Sha-Na-Na’s goofy harmlessness went over huge at Woodstock, to the shock of just about everyone (themselves included) – there was a bit of a resurgence of interest in the decade before the fabled ‘60s. A few years later, American Graffiti and Happy Days would make explicit this widespread nostalgia trip. Perhaps it was the cacophony of the ‘60s, the inescapable noisiness of that complicated decade, that made people long for the mythical simplicity of the ‘50s?

As if the legend of a decade that everyone had simply enjoyed, unproblematically and unquestioningly, becoming somehow acceptable gospel in the wake of the political murders, the widespread riots, the racial turmoil, and militant student protests of the Vietnam era? Hell, Ronald Reagan would soon run for president (and win!) telling voters that a vote for him was pretty much a vote for returning to the uncomplicated calm of the ‘50s.

Anyway. This brief documentary by legendary rock ’n’ roll verité artist D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop Festival, Don’t Look Back) provides a glimpse of a ‘50s firebrand’s re-emergence as a novelty act amid the final days of a decade he helped to create, but in which he had played almost no role. Dressed in a ridiculous outfit – his white jacket covered in beer-coaster-sized mirrors – and wearing his famously bouffant wig, the queerest man in showbiz stepped onto that stage in immediate, and utter, control of his act.

His band rushing up the tempo on nine of his classic songs (including “Long Tall Sally”, “Good Golly, Miss Molly”, “Jenny, Jenny”, & “Tutti-Frutti”), Richard hammered the piano for the first few numbers before getting up on top of the thing and dancing like a maniac. The crowd, maddeningly under-filmed by Pennebaker, seems to love every minute of it. And so do we.

Perfect at exactly 30-minutes – I don’t know if I’d have wanted to watch or to hear much more (since, let’s face it, it’s some pretty repetitive and unimaginative stuff) – this little film is a worthy document of a classic performer energizing a new generation. Or, perhaps, the same generation he’d energized when they were in Primary School. Plus, there’s this amazing moment when Pennebaker throws in a cutaway to a teenage boy trying to unhook his makeout partner’s bra during “Keep A Knockin’”. As in: You keep a knockin’, but you can’t come in. Wooooooo!


Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu

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