Synopsis: Tells the story of the Black queer origins of rock n’ roll, exploding the whitewashed canon of American pop music to reveal the innovator – the originator – Richard Penniman.
Stars: Richard Penniman, Lee Angel, Libby Anthony, John Branca, Newt Collier, Ashon Crawley, Charles Glenn, Fredera Hadley, Ralph Harper, Nona Hendryx, Ramon Hervey, Muriel Jackson, Mick Jagger, Sir Lady Java, Tom Jones, Jason King, Tony Newman, Tavia Nyong’o, Billy Porter, Morris Roberts, Zandria Robinson, Nile Rodgers, Stanley Stewart, Billy Vera, John Waters, Dr. Dewitt S Williams, Keith Winslow
Director: Lisa Cortés
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Growing up, my exposure to Little Richard outside of his television guest appearances was limited. At that point, the musician was fully immersed in his flamboyant and self-described “brown Liberace” phase in sequined suits and black eyeliner. His rollicking piano playing through any of his chart-topping classics could get even the staunchest wallflower’s toes tapping. The natural entertainer’s charm possessed the infectious energy that comes along once in a blue moon. As far as I knew, Little Richard had been going strong for years and kept knocking their socks off until he passed away in 2020 at 88.
Of course, that’s never the whole story, and as is the case with many a success tale, it is tempered with years of struggle and a fair share of painful truths that must be told to understand a legend truly. In director Lisa Cortés’ new documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything, we go beyond the flash and style that has seemed to define the music pioneer and hear about the life few knew about by the people who were there. With additional framework from scholars about the changing face of the music industry contextualized with information about the relationships Black queer culture had with the business, a developing picture illustrates just how big Little Richard’s mountain was to climb.
Born in Macon, GA, to a mother that accepted him for who he was but a father that didn’t until he became famous, Richard Penniman was one of 11 children who, by all accounts, was born with a talent for performing. The kind of person who could talk to anyone, he engaged with the right people (like guitarist and music icon Sister Rosetta Tharpe) and found himself a headliner and recording artist at a young age. An out-and-proud gay black man at a time when prejudice against any minority was dangerous, Little Richard often flew in the face of trouble. Still, he evaded head-on collisions with any rabble by making himself irreplaceable as a performer.
The documentary traces the life of Little Richard from these early days through a surprising conversion to a more devout life where he renounced his sexuality and raucous ways (interviews with gay/trans acquaintances from that era show that his friends were sad but understanding of this turn of events), only to turn on the persona of “Little Richard” when the spirit moved him. Years of up-and-down imbalance would follow, and while drugs are touched on, by all accounts, they never seemed to overtake the musician in the same way as they had for his peers. What would be Little Richard’s greatest struggle was the fight for recognition.
From his earliest recordings, Little Richard’s music was recorded by other (white) musicians and regularly outsold by these name stars (Elvis, Pat Boone, The Beatles), and when their tracks became synonymous with them and not him, it wounded the man that breathed joyous life into them. Near the film’s end, Cortés focuses on the vulnerability (often hidden by passive-aggressive dry humor) Little Richard felt toward this slight and the music industry in general. Though you think of songs like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” and “Lucille” now and can only hear Little Richard’s voice, there was a time when some had other voices associated with these classic tracks. Cortés nicely outlines just how far Little Richard’s influence passed into mainstream (and alternative) culture throughout the years, not just musically. A surprising amount of talent has adopted the way he dressed and his mannerisms.
As with most documentaries, how can you cover the full breadth of a life in 98 short minutes? You can’t, and that’s no fault of anyone involved with Little Richard: I Am Everything. I appreciated the effort from Cortés and a well-curated panel of scholars who went a step further than most docs do and gave viewers something to sink their teeth into while digesting the facts about Little Richard’s rise to fame. Understanding a bit more about Black queer rock and roll music at the time and how much of that style was appropriated by white artists for a completely different purpose was eye-opening. It gives a new appreciation not just for the artists like Little Richard who were able to push through it and have their names written in the history books but breaks your heart for the forgotten talents that saw their work unceremoniously taken from them.
LITTLE RICHARD: I AM EVERYTHING is in theaters and on digital April 21st,
with special nationwide theatrical screenings on April 11th.