Credit: Magnolia Pictures
by Fred Barrett Featured Film Horizon Line

Little Richard: I Am Everything — Lisa Cortés

April 14, 2023

Little Richard, born Richard Wayne Penniman, is a complicated figure in rock ‘n’ roll history not just because of the way his legacy as perhaps the originator of rock music was often neglected in favor of the white artists who followed in his footsteps, but also because of his own struggles with his sexuality. Having blazed the trail for a variety of flamboyant artists like Elton John and filmmaker John Waters — the latter appears as a talking head and cops to having gotten the idea for his iconic pencil mustache from the musician — Richard nevertheless renounced homosexuality as “unnatural” after his path away from the music business took him to the conservative halls of the church.

Aside from positioning the film as a counter-narrative to a music history that has too often overlooked its Black architects, it’s contradictions like these that director Lisa Cortés aims to grapple with in Little Richard: I Am Everything. Zipping through the iconic singer’s early life with all the panache of its subject, the film’s opening is a blur of concert videos, old photographs, archival footage, and complex family dynamics, a lot of it viewed through the lens of contemporary identity politics — which foreground Richard’s Black- and queer-ness.

Cortés’ motives are certainly noble, but her political fervor is also the film’s biggest drawback. Not because anything she or her gallery of talking heads — which includes filmmakers, musicians, and academics of varying degrees of fame — say isn’t true, but rather because it feels a little tired at this point. Hearing Billy Porter faux-apologetically say, “Sorry y’all, it wasn’t Elvis,” when discussing Richard’s status as rock music’s main innovator feels less like it’s shedding light on a previously unilluminated part of pop history and more like smug condescension toward an audience that is most likely well aware of the whitewashed history of rock ‘n’ roll — who wouldn’t be after the endless debates around cultural appropriation of the past few years?

Given just how long even a performer as famed as Little Richard was overlooked by the music industry’s institutions, the desire to make this point is understandable. However, contrasted with the passion that radiates from not just his recordings and performances but also from mere descriptions of his music — even the disappointingly subdued interpretation from contemporary artists, including John P. Kee and the usually highly charismatic Valerie June, still manage to capture some element of Richard’s magnetism — the talk of sociocultural spaces does little to illustrate the musician’s importance, although the juxtaposition of Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” with Pat Boone’s cover does offer an amusing, if slightly reductive, perspective on how Black and queer art is regularly sanitized and co-opted for the straight, white mainstream.

Examining these processes further would’ve added some dimension to the narrative, since the co-opting of authentic, raw sounds runs through the history of popular music. (I Am Everything‘s inclusion of the legendary, all-Black hardcore punk band Bad Brains, especially, could have provided an avenue to pose these questions in the context of subcultures while still maintaining a throughline to Richard’s work.) Unfortunately, the film hardly ever looks beyond the somewhat narrow lens of identity, and Cortés’ reluctance to expand the film’s scope renders its conclusions rather predictable. I Am Everything ends up falling in line with a kind of dull liberal historicism which is quick to (correctly) point out overt discrimination and bigotry but fares far worse with regards to material politics, especially when confronted with broader questions of commodification.

The inquiries into Richard’s conflicted personal life, which saw him pinball between sex — gay and straight — drugs, piety, rock ‘n’ roll, and gospel, are generally more interesting and navigate the documentary into thornier territory, as the artist’s highly contradictory personality is interrogated with a willingness to eschew adulation and ask uncomfortable questions about the effects of his denunciations of homosexuality. The answers remain vague, of course, as the harm done is hard to quantify. But one is still reminded of the value of “asking questions” — words so often deployed in bad faith — even when not providing neat, uncomplicated answers.

I Am Everything might well succeed in familiarizing a new generation with Little Richard — how much a younger and less lenient audience will be willing to forgive his homophobic heel turn is another question entirely. The film is less likely to offer them any new insight into the mechanisms that made his sidelining, as well as the sidelining of many others before and since, possible. The injustices that Cortés’ doc highlights deserve to be reiterated, but the film’s failure to introduce new ideas into that conversation will likely doom it to irrelevance.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 15.