Little Richard: I Am Everything

The Excellent ‘Little Richard: I Am Everything’ Captures Just About Everything

Little Richard brought a sheer exhilaration that was sexual, spiritual, and joyous and put it to music like no other. Lisa Cortés excellent documentary does the man justice.

Little Richard: I Am Everything
Lisa Cortes
21 April 2023 (US)

For nearly 70 years, Little Richard (born Richard Penniman, 1932-2020) has been a household name and recognized as a crucial pioneer of American rock ‘n’ roll. Director Lisa Cortés’ (whose previous films include Precious and All In: The Fight for Democracy) new documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything, is a reminder that Richard was a true giant and a primary musical influence on…well, everyone. Little Richard’s life story fills an enormous gap in understanding American rock ‘n’ roll music and the broader culture it came out of. That is, few lives speak more to the highly topical issues of Black and queer history than Richard’s. Cortés’ film is highly entertaining and impeccably timed, and she addresses all of the above without getting overly political or academic.

Richard is represented in Little Richard in archival performance footage and interviews, along with old and new interviews with the biggest of rock stars (e.g., Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney), current pop stars (Billy Porter), a filmmaker (John Waters), and several academics that put the race and LGBTQ issues into perspective. From the start, Richard has a supreme belief in himself and an over-the-top bravado. This is pretty remarkable when you see that not only was Richard Black and born in Macon, Georgia, during Jim Crow and the Great Depression, but he had a gimpy leg, was effeminate and gay, and had an abusive preacher dad that believed his gay son was destined for hell.

From there, a teenage Richard is washing dishes in a bus station diner in Macon, making $15 a week while not even being able to eat there or use the restroom. Viewers can start to better understand why Richard almost had to have such self-belief to not only become among the greatest of entertainers but to survive. So powerful was Richard’s charisma in this way that while watching Little Richard, Muhammad Ali naturally comes to mind.

Little Richard also crucially notes Richard’s primary musical inspiration, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel star of the 1930s and ’40s who has belatedly come to be recognized as The Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Along with very possibly being two of the four most important players to shape rock ‘n’ roll as we know it (most would also include Elvis and Chuck Berry), Richard and Tharpe have a lot more in common that resonates throughout Little Richard. Both were raised in the raucous and musical services of the so-called holy rollers of the Pentecostal church (of whom the film does not specifically speak a lot about but whose ranks also happen to include Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and James Brown), and they were also both Black and queer.

As to the ecstatic spirit of the church, Richard channeled that energy to make electrifying rock ‘n’ roll—yet the same church also told him that his rock ‘n’ roll, bold sexuality, and especially his homosexuality would all doom him to eternal hell. The church was thus both his greatest inspiration—and his worst nightmare. Along with issues of race, this horrendous conflict is seen at the core of Richard’s life, starting immediately after he and rock ‘n’ roll exploded in the ’50s.

Little Richard further illustrates how Richard helped liberate millions both sexually and racially, but not so much himself. Over the rest of his life, he would vacillate back and forth from boldly sexual and openly gay rocker to straight-acting or abstinent churchgoer and gospel hymn singer. Even the details and timeline of his two long-term love relationships, one with a trans woman and the other with his straight ex-wife, both interviewed, are not made altogether clear.

Richard’s problems with the business side of music are also covered legally and due to racial factors. One interviewee noted that due to society’s “infrastructure”, heterosexual white male artists that performed with a similar style and energy as Richard (like Elvis) or often channeled Richard (like the Beatles) enjoyed a much higher status. Richard’s contributions to American music have been recognized, but they have also often been eclipsed or, in a sense, obliterated – even though Presley and the Beatles, in particular, could hardly have praised and credited Richard enough.

Little Richard reminds viewers that Richard has always had a strong claim to be – even Elvis declared – “the real” King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Richard brought a sheer exhilaration that was sexual, spiritual, and simply joyous, all at once, and put it to music like no other. He was James Brown’s role model. A young Jimi Hendrix had been his guitar player. He gave license to a straight Mick Jagger to be as flamboyant, as sexual, and as androgynous as he wanted to be. Every time the Beatles screamed and shook their mop tops, sending millions into hysterics and Beatlemania, they channeled Richard, the Black church, and the Black, queer South.

In short, along with the music, the central theme of Little Richard explains how it was that for Richard to receive mainstream acceptance – in so many ways, he had to mask his true self. Oddly enough, this required his accentuating his most flamboyant and camp traits. Thus, the mainstream could see Richard in interviews and on talk shows over the years as Black, sexual, gay, and outrageous, yet still non-threatening. The tragic irony was that this very masking prevented both him and his achievements from being taken seriously. As one interviewee puts it, Little Richard could be a lot of things for everyone else, but he “really didn’t have a thing” in his fully authentic persona.

Cortés also mixes in some nice effects. A couple of times, to approximate the impact of Richard, she uses quick video montages of both cosmic and cellular-level phenomena to a humorous but fitting effect. Other times she shifts to slow-motion and zeroes in on close-ups. Once, this effect is used to enhance some already deeply moving testimony from some rock stars about their deep love and appreciation for Richard. Another time, however, it is done to capture an all too dark moment in a Richard interview with David Letterman that pinpoints the horrendous guilt Richard carried his entire life as both a gay and Christian person.

Ultimately, Cortés’ Little Richard embodies Richard’s unique talent and persona, including those struggles. Richard only seemed to see one way out of these deeply rooted conflicts: to transcend all of it. Richard’s performances, along with commentary from those there, deliver shivers. When one of Richard’s band members talks about a particular performance with Richard and says that while playing, he didn’t feel “of this world anymore”, you get it.

Major kudos to King and/or Queen Richard, and kudos to Cortés for delivering a remarkable film on a hugely important figure in American history.

RATING 9 / 10