“Little Richard: I Am Everything,” tells the story of the late rock icon, focusing both on his sexuality, and his place in rock history
Director Lisa Cortés’ documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything is in some ways a conventional doc about a rock legend, combining archival footage with talking head interviews from experts and generous helpings of the man’s music itself.
But Little Richard was a complicated man with a complicated life story, so there’s much to explore in that realm. Ultimately, the film focuses on two threads, both of which are equally fascinating.
One is that Little Richard was a pioneering queer artist in both his music and on-stage presentation, bringing all of that to a time and place (the 1950s South) that one would think wouldn’t be ready for that. Even then, he had a highly complex relationship with his sexuality, even claiming to renounce homosexuality at various times throughout his life (he once, at the height of his fame, even renounced rock ‘n’ roll as well, in favor of religion and studying for the seminary.)
The other major theme is that Little Richard, despite his status as one of the most important and influential figures in rock history, felt consistently under-appreciated throughout his life. He wrote classic songs starting in the 1950s, which were usually covered by white artists who profited much more handsomely than he did. The film uses that to tell a wider story about how the history of rock music has been whitewashed, with little acknowledgment of the Black pioneers of the genre.
Even closer to the end of his life, when Richard was regularly being honored at awards shows and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Richard had the impression that his work hadn’t endured as it should have.
The man born Richard Wayne Penniman truly did live an amazing, only-in-America life. Burn in 1932, he was a Southern Black man who emerged in his early 20s with a series of hits that included “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” Speaking of “Tutti Frutti,” the film offers a hair-raising explanation of what the original lyrics were of his signature song. If you know, you know, and if you don’t, you’ll be quite shocked.
He combined rock vocals and instrumentation with flamboyant stage antics and heavy makeup, decades before Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, or Elton John would earn millions doing the same.
The film follows the many twists and turns of Little Richard’s life, which included the time he gave up secular music just a few years into his biggest success, turning to gospel music instead. He was back in the pop/rock fold by the mid-’60s, where he’s said to have influenced numerous other luminaries.
The next several decades featured a series of comebacks, and he continued to tour well into the 2010s; on a business trip to Nashville about a decade ago, I told that Little Richard was living in the penthouse of the same downtown hotel where I was staying. He died in 2020 at age 87.
The film, presumably conceived and made after the singer’s death, does a fantastic job collecting the archival footage, although the talking heads are more of a mixed bag.
We get insights, in the film, from everyone from Mick Jagger to a series of academic types.
John Waters, who admits that the pencil mustache that’s been part of his look for decades was a direct homage to Little Richard, is the film’s best participant. He talks about how when he was growing up in Baltimore, all the white kids loved the Black radio stations, something that would inspire him to make the many different versions of Hairspray. Billy Porter also is there to show how Little Richard, in many ways, made what he does possible.
Little Richard: I Am Everything goes down as one of the better music documentaries in recent memories.
The film was acquired by Magnolia Pictures, out of Sundance, and it is set to eventually land on HBO Max, although the timing of the release is not clear.