“I am the originator. I am the eMANcipator. I am the architect of rock ‘n roll. Rhythm and blues had a baby, and somebody named it rock ‘n roll.”
Little Richard receiving the Merit Award at the 1997 American Music Awards
Truer words were never spoken. Without Little Richard, it’s difficult to conceive what music would have sounded like. Everyone from James Brown to the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to even the alleged King of Rock and Roll Elvis has been influenced by Richard “Little Richard” Wayne Penniman. There’s no telling where music would be today if Little Richard hadn’t come on the scene with his outlandish persona, his blatant sexuality, and his ability to get a crown on the feet and dance. Little Richard (as he frequently claims) never really received his flowers despite being so famous. He was not even awarded a Grammy! But in her most recent film, Little Richard: I Am Everything, director Lisa Cortés chooses to give him the credit he deserves while also inviting the viewer to learn about his long career and even longer and complicated life.
Interviewing still-living family members, bandmates, black queer scholars, and musicians he influenced, Little Richard: I Am Everything invites the viewer to learn just who he was, how he got his start, his troubles and conflicts, and every facet of his life to get to learn just who Little Richard was. Told primarily in chronological order, we get to see Little Richard’s humble beginnings in Macon Georgia as one of twelve children his mother and father raised. Because even at an early age Little Richard was “queer” (and the scholars interviewed define queer not just based on sexuality, but also just being “different” from the norm), his father (who was a church deacon) frowned upon his feminine personality. But one thing about Little Richard is he had a gift. Even singing at church, he blew people away with his talents.
It wasn’t long before he opted to try for a singing career. Discovered by famed singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe (who was Little Richard’s influence along with Ike Turner), and soon left home (after his father kicked him out for his sexuality) and hit the road to become a singer. One thing illuminated by Little Richard: I Am Everything was just how influential black queer culture was back in the day. There’s a segment about how many young black artists during that time were connected to that culture that is interesting and illuminating. In fact, Little Richard first performed his shows in drag using the name “Princess LaVonne.” Soon enough, Little Richard found his way and got a recording contract.
Little Richard was successful until he had his big break out “Tutti Frutti.” Little known fact (at least to me): this song was about homosexual sex with lyrics like:
“Tutti Frutti, good booty
If it don’t fit, don’t force it
You can grease it, make it easy”
Knowing that would never fly with a mainstream audience, the record label had him change the lyrics to what we now know, and the rest is history! With that song, he was a certified star. This was a time when audiences couldn’t be integrated, but Little Richard’s music was so dynamic that black and white audiences would go to the same concerts and party together to his music.
But at the same time, the powers that be didn’t want the fact of pop music being a gay black man, so there were covers of his songs sung by white artists like Pat Boone and even Elvis Presley, who ended up having more record sales for Little Richard’s songs than even he did. Little Richard: I Am Everything had a fascinating segment about cultural appropriation in which one of the interviewee subjects said “It’s not cultural appropriation, it’s cultural erasure” and how many white artists that Little Richard influenced went on to have bigger careers than he did. This always didn’t sit right with him.
Another incredibly fascinating subject that was illuminated in Little Richard: I Am Everything was the struggle that Little Richard dealt with his whole life. He was never shy about his homosexuality, but he also was raised in the church and had a conflict with his moral upbringing and his sexuality. In fact, there was a period in his life when he rejected his flamboyant sexuality and went as far as to enroll in a theological seminary where he dedicated his life to his religion, got married, and started singing gospel music. This followed him throughout his life as a result. Eventually, Little Richard found a happy medium: where he could be comfortable with who he was, and still praise God at the same time.
Little Richard: I Am Everything works well because it serves to inform the audience about the life of an icon. Having such interviewees like Mick Jagger, Tom Jones, John Waters (who admitted his famous mustache is due to Little Richard’s influence), Billy Porter, and countless others admiring Little Richard and retelling their experience with him personally or through his music helps paint a picture of the legendary icon. However, Lisa Cortés too some artistic freedom when it came to special effects and graphics that proved to be too distracting and not really necessary to tell the story she wanted to. The documentary works best when it doesn’t go for the bells and whistles and opts just to interview people and show archival footage.
Little Richard: I Am Everything ends with such a powerful moment in Little Richard’s life when he finally got the recognition at the American Music Awards he deserved. As you see Little Richard tear up (as well as his friends and colleagues tear up discussing that moment), you can’t help but also feel a few tears yourself. Cortés then shows a montage of the countless artists that were inspired by Little Richard from Jimmy Hendrix all the way to Lizzo and Lil Nas X. You can’t deny Little Richard! He is Everything!!
Little Richard: I Am Everything is currently available on Video On Demand.