Little Richard – I Am Everything.

‘I am the innovator. I am the originator. I am the emancipator. I am the architect of rock ‘n’ roll!’  While Sister Rosetta Tharpe might have an argument, few others could dispute the words of a rock ‘n roll legend with the confidence of Mohammed Ali.  Director Lisa Cortes (“All In: The Fight for Democracy”) looks back at a remarkable man who, sadly, in his later years rejected the queerness which had made him stand apart in “Little Richard – I Am Everything.”

Laura's Review: B+

While Cortes’s documentary follows a fairly standard template, using archival footage and stills, old interviews with her subject and new ones from admirers like John Waters, whose moustache continues to pay homage to the man, she presents such a fully fledged portrait of her subject in a fast-paced 101 minutes she doesn’t need to gild the lily.  Those who only remember Richard (nee Richard Wayne Penniman) from his brash television appearances or as the guy who sang ‘Tutti Frutti’ might be surprised to learn about all the contradictions in the life of the man whose sexuality ran into the roadblock of his God fearing beliefs.  (Even this aspect of his life reverberated into one of the many musicians he influenced, Prince eschewing profanity in his lyrics when he became a Jehovah’s Witness.)

Sporting a modern version of Richard’s pompadour, Billy Porter cheekily informs us ‘Sorry y’all, it wasn’t Elvis.’  And while Cortes traces Richard’s own influences, like the whoop he picked up from Gospel singer Marion Williams or Billy Wright’s look which informed his own, she also makes it abundantly clear how he was the first to create the sexualized rock ‘n roller who would strip off his shirt, play with androgyny and prance around with wild abandon.  Mick Jagger will attest to it all here.

He was one of twelve children who adored his mother Leva Mae, but it was his father, whose conflicting careers as a preacher, nightclub owner and bootlegger would initiate his path.  When his dad was shot and killed by a friend, Little Richard, who was already performing, took a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant where he couldn’t eat or use the bathroom to help support his family.  He began sending demos to Art Rupe of Specialty Records.  ‘Tutti Frutti’ was the first to ‘sound like a hit,’ but its lyrics, originally about anal sex, had to be toned down for air play.  Soon Pat Boone would be singing it (and, of course, making far more money off of it than its originator).

But the Little Richard who hung out with drag queens and loved orgies would eventually believe God was talking to him when he saw a fireball in the sky (it was Sputnik, but he couldn’t be convinced).  While he would beckon the Beatles to Hamburg, he himself went conservative, issuing Gospel records and getting married.  Later on, he would renounce homosexuality, effectively denying his own identity.  Still later, he would bring back his early persona with new guardrails.

“Little Richard – I Am Everything” is stuffed with incredible performances amidst the highs and lows of seventy years in the business.  Cortes’s impressive work culminates in a montage of all the musicians Richard influenced, a knockout punch of a final argument.

Robin's Review: B+

Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia in 1932, blessed with a strong voice and natural musical talent. Though a gay, black man during the segregation of the 40s and 50s, he made inroads into music that crossed color barriers. He was “Little Richard – I Am Everything.”
Having grown up during the 1950s, I was exposed to the birth of Rock’n’Roll with the likes of Elvis, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, the Big Bopper and, of course, Little Richard. As most kids at the time, we listened to the radio top 40s station and heard such classics as “Tutti Fruiti,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” But, that was just the surface of the 77 singles (and much more) that Little Richard created during his decades long career.

Documentary producer-director Lisa Cortes takes on the task of telling Richard Penniman’s life story and gives us a detailed account of that long, long life. It is no secret that Little Richard was gay (and black), two things that should have kept him from attaining fame. But, as Cortes shows, he was resilient, determined and talented black man and overcame the barriers society imposed on him.

Cortes makes the argument, one which I agree with, that Little Richard was, indeed, the real King of Rock’n’Roll, with the likes of Elvis and others (even the Beatles) as beneficiaries of his music and his influence – just listen to Paul McCartney using LR’s patented trill while singling “Long Tall Sally.”

I was amazed, while watching “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” of how little I knew about the man and his life. For instance, I did not know that Richard was dedicated to his mom, Leva Mae, for her entire life. He also gave up his career in RnR and entered the ministry to preach the word of god. Then he went back to his rock and roll roots and continued his long career.

As I have said for many years, documentaries should educate, entertain and enlighten. Lisa Cortes does that and more in chronicling the life and times of Little Richard, giving us his music in about as complete a way as I could imagine. I learned a lot about a man whose life I thought I knew.

Magnolia Pictures releases "Little Richard – I Am Everything" in theaters for a special presentation on 4/11/23 before opening in theaters and online on 4/21/23.