Exclusive Interview: Little Richard I Am Everything filmmaker Lisa Cortés “it was important to give him agency to be the narrator of his journey”

Little Richard: I Am Everything, released in US theaters and on digital on Friday, April 21st, sees Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning director Lisa Cortés excavate the Black queer origins of rock ‘n’ roll with Richard Penniman, aka Little Richard, as its “architect”. The fascinating and often thrilling film, which world premiered in the US Documentary Competition section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, 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.

Little Richard. Photograph: Jorgen Angel/Redferns.

Peeling back the whitewashed layers of music history, Cortés centres Black and queer scholars and commentators, while Little Richard’s life is also chronicled and analyzed by the man himself through a wealth of archive interviews, along with some of the multitude of entertainers and artists whom he inspired such as Mick Jaggar, Billy Porter, and John Waters. Going beyond the typical biodoc, the film never oversimplifies as it paints a multilayered portrait that expands to contextualize Little Richard’s rise and impact as a Black openly queer artist in an era of segregation, when homosexuality was illegal. Read our full review of the film from Sundance.

Lisa Cortés, director of Little Richard: I Am Everything, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Previously, Cortés co-directed All In: The Fight For Democracy, tracing the violent history of the voting rights struggle, and produced The Apollo, exploring African American cultural and political history through the story of Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. She executive produced Lee Daniels’ Precious, which received the Sundance Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for best drama, going on to win two of the six Academy Awards that it was nominated for among many other accolades. Her early career as a music executive was launched at Def Jam and Rush Artist Management, and she was VP of Artist and Repertoire at Mercury Records and founded the Loose Cannon label.

“I had to give Little Richard the mic” – director Lisa Cortés on doc Little Richard: I Am Everything

Ahead of the release of Little Richard: I Am Everything, Lisa Cortés had an exclusive conversation with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about her decision to use Little Richard as the narrator of his own story, the importance of including the hidden figures who helped shape the artist, and why she wanted John Waters to contribute.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: I think one of the signs of a great music documentary is when you come out and just want to listen to the music, which I did for days after watching this. Something that comes across in the film too is just how fresh and exciting it still sounds all these decades on.

Lisa Cortés: “It really hits you. When I need to get energized in the morning, I put on “Keep A-Knockin'”. The minute those drums come in I’m like, ‘yes!'”

September 14th, 1974, Wembley Stadium, London. Photo: Gijsbert Hanekroot. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

People should use that song as their alarm in the morning! To what extent did Little Richard himself, the way he lived and his attitude, inspire your approach to putting the film together?

“One of the first things I knew is that I had to give Little Richard the mic to tell the story. You can’t put little Richard in the corner, but it was especially important to give him agency to be the narrator of his journey. So the good and the complicated aspects of his life are told by Richard, and there certainly is commentary by other people because I felt there were some things that he says that we as audience members want to go, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t know about that?!’ That is the role of our incredible Black and queer scholars, and his friends and family, and the musicians who knew him. But Richard is centered, because how can you not have his color, his energy, and his perspective on the choices that he made?”

Little Richard at Wrigley Fields, Los Angeles, 2 September 1956. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The point is made that Little Richard isn’t always the most reliable narrator of his own story, but as you were going through all of the footage was there something that really stood out and felt particularly authentic which you immediately knew that you had to include?

“Richard’s induction of Otis Redding into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is very telling. His anger and his bitterness, though couched in humor, comes through. It’s very important for our audience to have this immersive experience provided by that archival footage of Richard’s pain of being there, inducting someone who he feels he influenced in a room full of people he feels he’s influenced who are not giving him his flowers. He is very bold and unapologetic in showing the receipts.”

Billy Wright in 1955/Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Esquerita. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

You paint a really compelling picture of his influence and his legacy, but how important was it for you to also go back and look into what shaped him? Some of the of those figures have been overlooked and are less known to us.

“Richard is an important part of the scaffolding of rock ‘n’ roll, and in any origin story you want to see who influenced the artist and in this case they are Black and they are queer. They are Billy Wright, they are Esquerita, they are Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and for the most part their names have been erased from the telling of this history. They are so important in the community and the musicality that they provided to Richard. Richard does his own thing, I’m not saying that he is sampling them, but whenever I see these hidden figures who we need to know about I am so excited about using documentary as a means of providing a platform of education.”

Little Richard. Image Credit: Ace Records box set ‘Little Richard: The Specialty Sessions’.

I love the “Chitlin’ circuit” sequence in the film covering the period in Little Richard’s life when he was performing in vaudeville troupes like Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam. The film details how the circuit was populated by Black queer women like Ma Rainey and Lucille Bogan, who sang “gut bucket blues”. The archive footage and photographs in that section is thrilling. Why was that a vital episode in his life to include?

“As a teenager he was kicked out of his home for being queer and was taken in by the owners of a gay club in Macon, Georgia in the 1940s. So first of all, let’s talk about that part of the history because some people seem to feel that moments we are living in now don’t have precedents. It was important to show that and then his going on the road in the Chitlin’ Circuit and performing in drag. When I made this film, I did not know that drag performances were going to be criminalized in some places and I love that we’re able to show that there’s this long history and it’s a history that Richard’s just a blip on. It’s a history that goes even further back.”

Little Richard at Wrigley Fields, Los Angeles, September 2nd, 1956. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Separate from the drag, it was interesting to hear him talk about wearing makeup on stage partly to make him seem less threatening to white audiences and especially to young girls, which I think some people might be surprised by today.

“Yeah, and I think so many of the contributors to the film are there to be in conversation with Richard. Because for us, intuitively we are like, ‘What do you mean in a time where homosexuality is illegal, and homophobia is rampant in 1955, you’re going to wear makeup so that you’re less threatening?!’ I love that we were able to bring in a voice who is representative of the audience going, ‘Wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense!’ There’s a dialogue that is happening in the film with questioning or applauding some of Richard’s choices.”

John Waters in Little Richard: I Am Everything, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo credit: Graham Willoughby. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

When you see John Waters’ mustache it seems obvious, but I’ve never actually heard him explicitly say that it is his “twisted tribute” to Little Richard before. Why did you want John Waters to be a contributor?

“I knew that he had a tremendous regard for Little Richard. There’s this very famous article that John Waters wrote about spending all this time with him and having this great interview with him, but then Richard was like, ‘No, I don’t want it to be published’. That becomes a part of the story that’s told in the interview that I had been intrigued by. I love the film Hairspray, the original with Divine, that tells the story of Black and white teens in Baltimore who fall in love with rock ‘n’ roll and who come together. That is a part of the context of how Little Richard in 1955 is affecting both Black and white teenagers. Also, he’s John Waters! Who doesn’t want to just talk to him about anything?! He has such a love for rock ‘n’ roll and he’s written this great fictional work that is a backstory to the story that weren’t telling, so it just had many layers and it made sense.”

By James Kleinmann

Little Richard: I Am Everything is released in select theaters and on demand on Friday, April 21st, 2023 from Magnolia Pictures.

“I had to give Little Richard the mic” – director Lisa Cortés on doc Little Richard: I Am Everything
Little Richard: I Am Everything – Official Trailer | Documentary by Lisa Cortés | Opens April 21

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