The blazing comet that was Richard Wayne Penniman is captured in Little Richard: I Am Everything, with all the complexities of a Black artist who was unapologetically queer and flamboyant one minute, only to renounce his sexuality and hedonism as a man of God the next. Yet one of the things that makes the legendary performer’s life so singular — and Lisa Cortés’ celebratory documentary for News84Media and HBO Max so exhilarating — is the extent to which he embraced that contradiction. It was no idle boast that he presented himself as a mold-breaking original. “I’m not conceited,” he said. “I’m convinced.”
Drawing from a bounty of fabulous archival material; expert interviewees including such music luminaries as Mick Jagger and Tom Jones; inventive graphic and animated embellishments; and a bundle of electrifying hits, Cortés gives Little Richard the kind of full-throated recognition he was too often denied in his lifetime.
Little Richard: I Am Everything
The Bottom Line
A jubilant reclamation.
That’s because his race, sexuality and, later, his religious fervor didn’t fit into the birth-of-rock ‘n’ roll narrative the white American music industry wanted to shape. Never mind that he was pounding the piano keys, whipping up the first integrated crowds of Black and white teenagers with his raspy, hollered vocals and falsetto whoops early enough to be a formative influence on performers like Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
One of many high points here is a clip from the 1988 Grammys telecast, when the 56-year-old Richard was invited to present the award for best new artist. He brought the crowd to its feet by declaring himself the winner, not once but three times, before chiding the US Recording Academy for failing ever to give him anything — playing it for campy laughs but at the same time schooling an entire industry.
The film opens with a TV interview roughly a decade-and-a-half after the hits that established him, with Little Richard wearing a sequin-trimmed pink performance suit and a leather tiara propping up his signature pompadour. Reveling in his own beauty, he says, “I let it all hang out. If you got it, God gave it, show it to the world.”
The self-adulation, the flashy, genderqueer styling and the uninhibited sexual energy in his roof-raising stage appearances made him a uniquely subversive figure in pre-Civil Rights America and an early celebrity gay icon, a key point that’s perhaps this documentary’s greatest strength. . “He spit on every rule there was in music,” says John Waters, who confesses that his own pencil mustache is a “twisted tribute” to Little Richard and explains that even racists in Baltimore danced to his songs.
Cortés and editors Nyneve Minnear and Jake Hostetter keep the structure loose and freewheeling while at the same time following the linear chronology of the subject’s life.
Richard was born in 1932 in Macon, Georgia, into a family of 12 children. His father was a church deacon who also ran a nightclub and sold moonshine. Richard walked with a limp and was mocked for his effeminate manner, raising eyebrows at home by wearing his mother’s jewelry and fashioning robes out of curtains and bedsheets. But he stood out from a young age as a powerful voice in the church choir, and he was banging on his grandfather’s piano even before he learned to play a note.
When his father kicked him out of the house at 15, he was taken in by the proprietors of a local speakeasy that functioned as an informal gay bar. He worshiped Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who had found success taking the Black gospel sound out of the church and into the dancehalls. She heard him sing while he was working at the Macon City Auditorium as a teenager and brought him out on stage.
Richard joined what was then known as the chitlin’ circuit, performing with various African American dirty blues combos in the late 1940s, often appearing in drag, billed as Princess LaVonne. Among his early influences was openly gay musician Billy Wright, from whom Richard lifted the pompadour and makeup, and Esquerita, whose frenetically percussive piano-playing was instrumental in forging his style. He borrowed from others just as later artists borrowed from him. Illuminating interviews with queer history scholars underline the degree to which the world of traveling musicians at that time was a refuge for queer and gender nonconforming performers.
The film’s extensive backgrounding provides a vivid canvas for Little Richard’s resplendent emergence in the mid-1950s after he assembled a band and secured a contract with Specialty Records. His first major hit, “Tutti Frutti,” changed everything, although the original ribald version alluding to anal sex, which he had honed in clubs, was toned down to make it more radio-friendly. But even though white independent deejays popularized Richard’s recording, covers by Elvis and the very vanilla Pat Boone, of all people, outsold it.
More hits followed in an extraordinarily prolific period, among them “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Keep A-Knockin’” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” The latter prompts Nona Hendryx to observe wryly that while many people might not have realized the song was about sex, she knew what “sure like to ball” meant. Despite his outrageous, overtly queer look, his shows attracted young women who started hurling their panties at the stage.
The doc covers his relationships with women and his 5-year marriage, his drug use, even his professed fondness for orgies. It also notes his failure ever to be adequately compensated for his music due to shady royalty deals that were not uncommon at the time. Along with his significance as a queer Black artist, it digs deep into his sudden conversion to born again Christianity, beginning in 1957 when he declared in the middle of an Australian tour that he was renouncing secular music to pursue a life in the ministry.
Financial need steered him back to rock ‘n’ roll in the early ’60s on European tours during which both the Beatles and the Stones opened for him at various times. But he turned back to God again following the death of his brother. The divide between the sacred and the profane remained a constant, and some in the LGBTQ community felt he had liberated others but failed to liberate himself. That makes for a fascinating dichotomy, although prominent African American Studies professor Tavia Nyong’o, who has written extensively about Little Richard, argues that the glitter as much as the godliness was all in the name of Jesus.
Nyong’o’s chapter on Richard in the essay collection Black Performance Theory is called “Rip It Up”: Excess and Ecstasy in Little Richard’s Sound. Excess and ecstasy are as good a way as any to describe the charge that pulsates throughout Cortés’ film, whether it’s chronicling the lows or the giddy highs.
The latter, however, are the ultimate takeaway in this spirited account of an artist who remains unparalleled in American popular music. His influence on generations of performers, from David Bowie and Freddie Mercury through Rick James and Prince, right up to Harry Styles, is evidenced in a terrific closing montage. As Billy Porter says, “Richard is the reason I can show up and be who I want to be.” Even if you’re not a fan of Little Richard going into this film, chances are you will be by the time it’s over.
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