In Little Richard: I Am Everything, the complicated life and unsung legacy of the “Quasar of Rock” is unpacked in a tight 98-minute examination that gives a brief yet compelling overview of both the suffering and triumph that influenced Little Richard throughout his career. Director Lisa Cortés is able to capture Little Richard’s magnetic essence through extensive use of archival footage, interspersing recorded interviews and concert footage of the rocker with talking-head style interviews from family, friends, and Black scholars alongside newly-recorded performances of the music that shaped Little Richard’s life.
The documentary provides insight into Little Richard for a generation that may be unfamiliar with the rockstar’s powerful, painful story. While the pacing is somewhat uneven throughout the documentary, one must give credit to Cortés for managing to share so many anecdotes spanning the whole of Richard Penniman’s life, painting a vivid, but fleeting image of both the man and the myth of Little Richard. Beginning from his early childhood in the 1930s in rural Macon, Georgia, Little Richard: I Am Everything tracks Penniman’s origins of queer joy, religious trauma, and creative innovation in a cruel Jim Crow South. The initial embrace of his identity as a Black, queer, disabled artist emphasizes Little Richard’s defiance of the odds on his debaucherous rise to fame, leading the shocking denouncement of this identity in his later years to outline his tangled relationship with his sexuality, spirituality, and substance use.
Faith is as crucial to Little Richard’s legacy as his music, and his complex relationship with religion encompasses a broad spectrum of interpretation and ideology. A near-death experience at the peak of his musical career played a major role in Penniman’s spiritual evolution, changing the course of his life and the fabric of his being. Footage from his later decades shows Penniman deconstructing his very soul to an audience of people, mostly white, who cheer in celebration as the openly-gay star spews homophobic and transphobic rhetoric. The core of this torturous self-flagellation of his sexual identity is tightly wrapped among the thorny vines of a Southern Baptist home and church deacon father that rooted fear-based fire-and-brimstone Christianity deeply into Penniman. His father, deeply involved in the church, later disowned Richard as a teenager for his femme gender presentation. Finding his artistic spark in underground drag scenes where he would perform as “Princess LaVonne,” the teen Penniman transformed into Little Richard thanks to the guidance and support of fellow Black innovators of the music industry.
The Black, queer origins of rock n’ roll are the driving force thrumming beneath the film’s central narrative, summarized by Little Richard deeming himself “the Black Liberace“. Highlighting figures like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Billy Wright, the film holds these artists up as the originators of the mainstream sound we hear today. However, these artists never received the credit—or cash—they were due, as white industry executives and artists alike stole from them throughout their careers. Little Richard was no exception to this injustice, as his sexually graphic and unapologetically queer music was whitewashed by Elvis and Pat Boone, with a clip from Boone’s stunningly vanilla rendition of “Tutti Frutti” interspersed as Penniman discusses the song’s lyrical inspiration of anal sex.
In another striking vignette, young Paul McCartney speaks excitedly about meeting Little Richard, which the band claims was their first celebrity encounter. Completely starstruck McCartney reflects on the ways in which Penniman’s music shaped their own. However, in his lifetime, Little Richard never achieved any recognition from the GRAMMYs, let alone an award; compare this to The Beatles’ 7 wins and 23 nominations. It’s moments like these that punctuate the film as a sad, dark reminder of the truth—racism and bigotry are the structural specters that continue to haunt every pillar of the music industry. These monsters embedded in the past are robbing those with the richest insight and talent of the right to truly equal opportunities and pay.
The film takes a devastating turn as Little Richard finally achieves a modicum of recognition from the music industry with his inclusion in the first class of the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame inductees, only to be prevented from attending the ceremony due to a highly-publicized car accident. Following this crushing turn of events, Penniman’s deeper spiral into substance abuse brings the torment that unconsciously informed the artist’s rebellious highs and brutal lows into the foreground. The documentary manages to strike a precarious balance in holding Little Richard’s world-changing achievements in tandem with his personal struggles, sensitively capturing the prismatic energy of the enigmatic rocker throughout his multi-decade career.
Throughout Little Richard: I Am Everything, friends, family, and academics all repeatedly state that Richard Penniman was not a person one could put into a box. Little Richard never held back from the brazen, as his music was designed to both shock and delight, serving as the defining soundtrack to the American teenager experience. Rejecting the conservative rigidity of generations past, Little Richard remains a keystone in the soul of the genre because of his complete refusal to conform to the dehumanizing social expectations of the time. His unpredictability makes his star burn bright nearly 100 years after his birth.
Discussing the timelessness of his story, director Lisa Córtes explains that “Little Richard’s struggles and story are more urgent than ever, as states ban books based on race and queerness, and politicians openly question gay marriage and school integration.” His multitudes helped him soar as he desperately fought the demons that sought to clip his wings. Despite his personal struggles, his joyful and exuberant spirit still fills our lives to this day. Cortés asks, “without Little Richard, would Lizzo exist? Would Lil Nas X? Would the Rolling Stones?” After a viewing of Little Richard: I Am Everything, one can easily and definitively answer these questions.
Little Richard: I Am Everything is available in theaters and on digital streaming platforms on April 21st, 2023. For more information on where to watch the film, visit littlericharddocumentary.com.