Sundance 2023 Film Review: Little Richard I Am Everything ★★★★

If you’re going to make a film about Little Richard, it’d better be electrifying, complex, and queer. That’s exactly what Oscar-nominated director Lisa Cortés delivers with Little Richard: I Am Everything, executive produced by Dee Rees, which world premiered in the US Documentary Competition section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and has been acquired for distribution by Magnolia Pictures.

Introducing the film, Cortés says she was inspired by the singer to “colour outside the lines”, as she proves with this ambitious work that traces the musician’s journey to stardom as an out gay man and his later rejection of both his sexuality and even the style of music he helped to create. It convincingly reasserts his legacy as “the architect” of rock ‘n’ roll, peeling back the whitewashed layers of music history to uncover its Black queer origin story. As it does so, Cortés centres Black and queer scholars and commentators who offer considered, stimulating, and often enlightening insights. Little Richard’s life is also chronicled and analyzed by the man himself, his former band members, his ex-wife Lee Angel, and relatives and friends, along with some of the multitude of entertainers whom he inspired. Editors Nyneve Minnear and Jake Hostetter keep things moving at an invigorating pace, and Cortés manages to cover a lot of ground in a 98-minute film that goes beyond the typical biodoc, painting a multilayered portrait that expands to contextualize Little Richard’s rise and impact as a Black openly queer artist in an era of segregation.

Although several contributors make clear that Little Richard wasn’t always the most reliable narrator of his own story, one of the delights of the film are the various archive interviews and chat show appearance that run throughout. The self-described “bronze Liberace”, was born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia in 1932. Aside from the dominance of the church, Zandria Robinson describes where Richard grew up as being conducive to the artist he became: “the South is the home of all things queer; of the different; of the non-normative…”, going on to define queer as “a presence in a space that is different from what we require or expect; different from the norm”. One of 12 siblings, in an interview from the 1980s Little Richard recalls his father, Charles, telling him that he had wanted seven boys but that he’d “spoiled it, because I was gay”, disapproving of the boy wearing his mother’s brooches, curtains, and makeup. Fully accepted for who he was by his mother, as LGBTQ+ activist and entertainer Sir Lady Java touchingly describes, Richard was rejected by his father and taken in by the owners of Ann’s Tic Toc, a gay-friendly speakeasy in Macon, where he had a room to live upstairs and would sing blues and gospel for the bar’s patrons downstairs.

Among the highlights of I Am Everything is its liberal use of incredible archive film and photographs, such as the footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe playing guitar, referred to by Labelle vocalist Nona Hendryx as “the mother of rock ‘n’ roll” who, according to Zandria Robinson, “shifted a lot of what we thought was possible for Black sound outside of the church”. Tharpe was a favourite performer of the young Richard Penniman and she in turn was impressed by him, leading to his first stage performance when she called him up to sing with her at the Macon City Auditorium in 1945. It’s a moment that we see evoked, with musician Valerie June, in one of several brief stylized recreations of pivotal episodes in the artist’s career, with an appropriate air of magic and stardust.

Two years later, he had adopted his stage name and was touring as part of the “Chitlin’ circuit” in vaudeville troupes like Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam. As the film details, the circuit was populated by Black queer women like Ma Rainey and Lucille Bogan, who sang “gut bucket blues” complete with filthy lyrics. “Her stuff could make a listener blush today”, comments Juilliard ethnomusicology professor Fredera Hadley of Lucille Bogan. At a time when homosexuality and cross-dressing were criminal offenses, there was more leeway in late night entertainment and Little Richard would perform both as himself, and his drag persona, Princess LaVonne. As music scholar Jason King observes, “This travelling world was crucial for any gender nonconforming, queer performer who didn’t feel welcome in their home or home community”.

As well as reflecting on the impact Little Richard had on the world, I Am Everything also explores his own inspirations. He recalls “idolizing” blues singer Billy Wright—who was also openly gay—not so much for his music, but for his look; his “green suits and green and gold shoes”, his hairstyle, and pancake makeup. He credits Wright with securing his first record deal, which made him a local celebrity, and saw his father welcome him back into his life, putting his son’s music on heavy rotation at the club he owned, the Tip In Inn, not long before he was shot and killed. When considering the contradictions of Little Richard’s life, it’s hard not to compare him to his father, who somehow mangled to reconcile being a church deacon, with being a bootlegger and nightclub club owner. Another major influence on the emerging artist was Black queer musician Esquerita, whom Little Richard says he “got together” with, as Esquerita taught him how to play piano, as well as empowered and emboldened the young performer to be himself.

His career was never a plain sailing one. After his father’s death, he found himself working as a dishwasher at a Greyhound bus station, where he recalls he wasn’t able to eat or use the bathroom because of segregation. By 1955, he was in New Orleans to record an album. “They wanted me to sound like Ray Charles and B.B. King…they wouldn’t let me sing like Little Richard, they wanted me to imitate…”, but he wanted to sound “different”, recalls the singer of those first recording sessions. Once his distinctive sound had been captured, and the original anal sex related lyrics to “Tutti Frutti” (“Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy”) had been cleaned up by songwriter Dorothy Labostrie, with some women’s names added in, Little Richard had his first hit record.

Jason King encapsulates the impact of the track, and its essence of teen spirit that helped it to explode, saying that “it was all this post-war teenage horniness, and desire to be erotically free, put into musical form”. It was so successful that record executives put a white face on what Little Richard had created, with Elvis (who apparently once told Little Richard that he was the true King of Rock ‘n’ Roll) and Pat Boone recording covers of the track, going on to have even bigger hits with it. In what would become a refrain in Little Richard’s story, the royalties he received were minimal. Cortés builds upon this section of the film to examine the fine line between homage and inspiration, cultural appropriation and erasure.

“Tutti Frutti” was followed by a string of genre-defining hit records for Little Richard, including “Lucille” in 1957, which John Waters—always a reliably entertaining and perceptive documentary contributor—can’t recall whether he stole a copy of or not, because he admits that he stole so many records as a kid. The Hairspray filmmaker muses, “the first songs that you love that your parents hate, is the beginning of the soundtrack to your life and in my case it was most definitely “Lucille”. It gave me the fuel to rebel really early on!” Adding that his own signature pencil thin moustache is a “twisted tribute” to the singer.

Classified as Black, or “race music”, that wasn’t played on white radio stations, Little Richard’s early hits coincided with a time of heightened racial tension and reckoning in the country following the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955. As King puts it, Little Richard’s impact was seismic, not just musically: he “was danger”, he “represented a complete upheaval of the existing social system…he was singing about graphic sex” in a coded way. But Little Richard reflects that his “feminine” image and makeup made him unthreatening and acceptable to perform for white girls and women, going on to acknowledge that his “music broke down the walls of segregation”. Even today, with the right’s extremist regressive agenda, this film would no doubt find itself on the likes of Ron DeSantis’ “Stop W.O.K.E.” target list, making the nuances of Little Richard’s story and its intersections with race and queerness all the more urgent.

Along with his cultural significance, there are some satisfying insights into the musicology of rock ‘n’ roll and Little Richard’s style of playing. King for instance comments on his “innovative and fascinating” piano playing, partly influenced by Ike Turner, as Little Richard developed his voice to that of a “preacher” with its “gravelly, hardcore sound”.

At various times, we see a sex positive Little Richard talk about enjoying orgies, though he says his Bible was never too far away. After what he perceived as a series of signs from God while on tour in Australia in 1957, he enrolled to study theology at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, turning on and even burning his own work, reportedly calling rock ‘n’ roll “devil music”, which led to the more understated sound of his gospel recordings. Two decades later, when drugs and alcohol had begun to take over his life and he’d suffered a series of personal tragedies in rapid succession, including the deaths his brother and his nephew, he fully embraced religion and renounced his own homosexuality as a sin. As Jason King succinctly puts it, Little Richard “was good at liberating other people, not at liberating himself”. With Sir Lady Java describing his later actions as a “betrayal” to the LGBTQ+ community, she also acknowledges that she “would never have taken a chance to go into the clubs in a dress if it wasn’t for Little Richard; he gave me peace, that I could go and be who I wanted to be”.

It’s a sentiment shared by Billy Porter who attributes his freedom of expression as an artist to Little Richard, saying “the reason why I am finally, finally able as a Black queer man to show up and do anything I want, is because of him”. We also hear from Tom Jones, who recalls being enamoured by Little Richard on film, saying that seeing him gave him the confidence to do what he wanted to do. While John Lennon reminisces about The Beatles accompanying Little Richard to Germany before they were stars, with McCartney describing them as his “disciples” who would go on to play some of his hits themselves like “Long Tall Sally”. Mick Jaggar talks about what he soaked up from watching Little Richard perform every night on the 30 date tour that he opened for him on, and Nile Rodgers shares how Bowie had “idolized” Little Richard and wanted to explicitly channel him when they worked together.

Using their own words, Cortés compelling demonstrates Little Richard’s influence on some of music’s biggest stars and cultural icons, leading to a moving climatic montage featuring the likes of Freddie Mercury, Prince, Elvis, Cher, Madonna, Lil Nas X, Lenny Kravitz, Rod Stewart, Gaga, Harry Styles, and even Vanjee on Drag Race. It’s a powerful, galvanizing note to end on that left me wanting to put on the most outrageous outfit I could find in my closet and run outside screaming “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop-bam-boom!” Thank you Little Richard, for everything.

By James Kleinmann

Little Richard: I Am Everything world premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and will receive further in-person screenings on Thursday, January 26th and Friday, January 27th, and is also available on demand via the festival’s online portal. For more details and to purchase tickets to the official Sundance website.

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