Little Richard: I Am Everything (2023)

April 28th, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Lisa Cortes; Documentary with Little Richard, Mick Jagger, John Waters, Billy Porter, Tom Jones, ; USA 2023, 98 min.

Rock legend Little Richard comes alive in this new biopic from Lisa Cortes. It sees the musical icon trying to come to terms with his complex personality and explores the lack of public recognition during his lifetime. John Waters, Mick Jagger and Tom Jones – among others – help to shed light on a life so full of promise, but blighted by social reality. Sometimes verging on the hagiographic, Cortes manages a wealth of information with aplomb, a more non-linear approach might have been an alternative.

Richard Wayne Penniman (1932-2020) was born in Macon (GA) in the deep South of he USA. Black, queer and disabled he was most certainly abused in childhood. But his deep religious faith eventually led to him renouncing his gayness: “God wanted Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”.

The man who would create “Tutti Frutti”, ”Long Tall Sally”. “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “Rip it Up” single-handedly invented Rock’N’ Roll – but the glory and the awards went to Elvis and Pat Boone: No wonder, he felt cheated. He was the architect of an art form and a social identity that became progressively clearer only later in his life.  

Michael Jackson, Prince and later David Bowie (who idolised Little Richard) profited from Richard’s fight for an identity that overcome segregation, at least for part of a younger generation, after the events of 1968. But the music industry “ignored and cheated him”. ‘It was unfair’ says historian John Branca.

Academics may try to come to terms with it, citing the ‘then’ and ‘today’ comparisons, but Little Richard needs no defenders in our contemporary world, he lived through a time which was soul-crushing, and no film can gloss over this. Little Richard was overly optimistic when he claimed “My music broke down the walls of segregation”. And later he is quoted as saying “I want to change my image. I want to come out loud and gaudy as ‘the Living Fame”.

The feature makes no connection to “Flame”; it is a nod to the Pentecostal origins of the gay disco singer Sylvester. Little Richard was really re-inventing himself, even though it was not a always a linear process. But the singer’s religious ambivalence was the kicker in later years.

There are TV interviews and concert footage galore, and alone for this selection Cortes deserves credit. She may have strayed into an intellectual wilderness of a hindsight interpretation, but she keeps his music alive. The true King of Rock’N’Roll will always have the last word when he sings, breaking down our defences like no one else. AS


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