Early in the new documentary “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” two sentences perfectly capture the man and his legacy.
John Waters proclaims, “He spit on every rule there was in music.” and Little Richard himself declares, “My music broke down the walls of segregation.”
When we think of the “kings” of Rock & Roll, Elvis is always crowned the one and only. Presley is of course highly talented, but it was Little Richard who truly exploded through the music scene (and all its bullshit) with his wild style and incredibly unique talents.
A great deal of Richard’s life and career has fallen prey to whitewashing, so the depth of information held within Lisa Cortés’s documentary is like finding buried treasure. The filmmaker traces Little Richard’s journey from his early life as a young, black, Gay, son of a Georgia minister, through his success and breakthrough in the world of music, and his on again-off again years as Christian preacher who renounced Rock music and homosexuality.
Little Richard started his career learning the horrors of white opportunism. As “Tutti Frutti” took the country by storm, white record executives wanted to “erase the black” out of the song. Richard’s fiery version was covered by Elvis Presley and completely sanitized by Pat Boone, resulting in an embarrassingly milquetoast version.
In a great scene, Richard’s band mates can’t help but laugh at the footage of Boone pathetically struggling to wrap his mouth around Richard’s lightning-fast lyrics.
As the film shows time and again, Richard was screwed over throughout the entirety of his career.
While embraced by fellow artists and legions of fans, he was continually denied proper music royalties and was completely absent from Grammy nominations.
The performances and music Cortés chose for her film are a testament to the undeniable power of Little Richard. Jumping down from the balcony and into the crowd before attacking his piano and commanding the stage, he was a volcanic eruption of eroticism and soul deep fury that scared some and seduced millions.
Cortés guides viewers through Richard’s life with purpose, balancing the racism and bigotry he would experience with the Civil Rights issues of the time.
Little Richard brought black and white together, if only for one night. When he took the stage, there was no racial divide, only his disciples dancing at the throne of their king; a man who owned every moment and never hid his views on anything, even when he denounced his own homosexuality.
Through many interviews with musicians, family members and black and queer scholars, the film reveals how Richard was a symbol of self-expression. Cortés is flawless in showing how the legendary rocker was an important symbol of change, leaving his mark on pretty much everyone.
John Waters was highly influenced, saying, “… Little Richard’s mustache I wear, to this day, for over fifty years, in a twisted tribute to him.”
Mick Jagger took Richard’s constant stage movement and made it his own standard when performing.
David Bowie asked producer Nile Rodgers to help craft an album with Richard’s upbeat aura. That album would become one of Bowie’s biggest successes, 1983’s “Let’s Dance”.
Director Lisa Cortés covers more ground than most biopic documentaries, evoking the many roads of Little Richard’s life and personalities, the footage the director unfolds is incredible.
There will never be another soul like Richard Wayne Penniman, also known as Little Richard. A pioneer in music and life, the man demanded for everyone to accept him and wouldn’t allow the world to turn away until HE was done with US.
“Little Richard: I Am Everything” is a tremendous film about a colossal talent. Truly, Little Richard is who the phrase “The one and only” was made for.
Of his talent and groundbreaking persona, Richard once said, “I’m not conceited. I’m convinced!”
As are we.
The 2023 Sundance Festival takes place January 19-29.