Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 25th, 2023
Little Richard: I Am Everything (Lisa Cortés, 2023) 4 out of 4 stars.*
Richard Wayne Penniman (1932-2020), otherwise known as Little Richard, is one of the 20th-century’s greatest musicians, yet has never yet received a documentary treatment. Thanks to director Lisa Cortés (All In: The Fight for Democracy), that error is now rectified. Her profile of the star undertakes not only to highlight his artistic achievements, but to remind us of his status as Black and queer icon, both. Wop-Bop-A-Loo-Bop-A-Lop-Bam-Boom!
That last line is, for those who somehow don’t know, from his seminal 1955 hit “Tutti Frutti,” a song initially written about anal sex where the lyrics had to be cleaned up by collaborator Dorothy LaBostrie to make it playable on mainstream radio. What could not be airbrushed—not should it have been—was the wild exuberance with which Little Richard sang and performed, whether playing the piano while upright or standing on furniture, his voice blasting at full volume ad punctuated by primal screams that would inspire the likes of Paul McCartney. Indeed, what comes through loud and clear here is that there are almost no great rock stars of the ensuing years who do not owe Richard a profound creative debt, starting with the so-called “King of Rock & Roll” himself, Elvis Presley.
Gay, out, and proud are also important ways to describe Little Richard, at least at intervals. Nothing if not mercurial, our late protagonist vacillated over his identity throughout his life, sometimes choosing religion and gospel over sexuality and rock. Occasionally, he would find a way to square the circle, but more often than not it would be either/or for him. This may complicate his legacy for any modern-day queer person looking for a role model, but it’s not hard to understand, given his upbringing (the child of a minister, albeit a bar-running one) and the times in which he was raised.
Cortés populates her movie with legions of celebrities and historians, through both new interviews and archival footage, who speak to the influence of Little Richard on music and the culture at large. We hear from the likes of Mick Jagger, John Waters, Billy Porter, Nona Hendrix (one third of Labelle), Tom Jones, Nile Rodgers, and others, including family members and friends, and insightful scholars such as Zandria Robinson, Fredara Hadley, Jason King, and Tavia Nyong’o. Anyone entering Little Richard: I Am Everything with little to no knowledge of the subject will emerge fully educated in a great variety of ways.
The title speaks to Richard’s enduring need for validation, which stems from his frequent lack of recognition for so long. He is certainly not the only Black artist to see his songs achieve greater airplay when performed by white singers, but given his foundational role at the root of rock music, it’s especially criminal that he was denied his place at the top for so long. Inducted in 1986 into the first class of the then-new Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (a ceremony he missed because of a car accident), he still always longed for more. May he appreciate what this movie does for him from, even if from beyond the grave. He was, indeed, everything.
*Expanded from capsule review in Sundance Curtain Raiser.