Of all the early rock-and-roll progenitors, Little Richard arguably best embodied the spirit of the music—its rebellious temperament, its cross-racial appeal, its youthful ecstasy. He imbued the piano with rhythm and blues, frenetically pounding on the keys to generate an up-tempo sound that matched his gospel-influenced vocals. His music crossed the color barrier, finding unique purchase with white audiences; his unabashed Blackness and flamboyantly androgynous style struck the status quo like a battering ram. He directly inspired acts like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, whose members viewed Little Richard as a borderline-religious icon, and his influence could be felt through the stage presence of myriad later artists, including David Bowie and Prince. But like too many influential Black artists of his generation, he never quite received his due during his lifetime.
Sadly, Lisa Cortés’s new documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything, makes the case for Little Richard’s unimpeachable greatness in the driest format imaginable: a soup-to-nuts biography that plays like a history lecture. The film takes the standard music-documentary approach—a mixture of archival concert footage, B-roll, and television appearances interspersed with talking head commentary from a variety of scholars and contemporaries. We dutifully learn about Little Richard’s early experiences in various churches, the development of his stage antics, the risqué origins of his first hit, “Tutti Frutti” (it’s about anal sex!), his sexual debauchery and drug addiction, and so forth. Cortés occasionally features brief performances of Richard’s songs from current musicians, which attempt to convey the music’s evergreen nature, but otherwise this is a by-the-book glossy profile that drags at nearly 100 minutes.
I Am Everything transparently aspires to teach younger generations about Little Richard and argue for his continuing relevance, so it’s somewhat understandable that it adopts a holistically educational approach. After all, how many people are currently familiar with 1950s rock-and-roll mythologies, let alone people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “godmother of rock and roll,” and musician Billy Wright, who was Little Richard’s direct artistic influence—or the existence of the Chitlin’ Circuit, a series of performance venues that catered to Black entertainers?
Yet the film’s monotonous, chronological presentation of facts can’t help but run counter to its aims, even as the mostly Black talking heads strive to accurately frame the musician as a radical character. Since the operating assumption is that the audience isn’t aware, for example, that the concept of the “teenager” was a midcentury phenomenon, or that the youth’s postwar angst and desire to break free from the era’s social and sexual repression inspired widespread interest in rhythm-forward music, it’s difficult to experiment with structure or form, even if that would best pay tribute to Little Richard’s groundbreaking techniques.
The handling of Little Richard’s queerness—both his embrace of his sexual identity and his subsequent rejection of it—represents I Am Everything’s most compelling and frustrating qualities. Commentary around his gender performance frequently brings the best out of the film, such as when writer Zandria Robinson succinctly argues that the South is “the home of all things queer,” and that queerness isn’t just about sexuality—it’s “about a presence in a space that is different from what we require or expect.” Little Richard’s effeminate appearance was a complicated double-edged sword: His pancake Makeup and pompadour hairstyle counterintuitively garnered him a passionate white female audience, because he presented as accessible and nonthreatening.
At his height, Little Richard weaponized his sexuality as both a provocation and a marketing tool, and often wore it as a badge of honor. But his religious upbringing and his recurrent forays into evangelicalism led him to publicly denounce homosexuality on multiple occasions, including as late as in 2017. His oscillating pride and self-loathing are a key part of Little Richard’s story, and while I Am Everything addresses the personal contradictions head-on, the film ultimately has too many irons in the fire to give the topic proper consideration. It’s easy to imagine a version of I Am Everything that exclusively focused on Little Richard’s sexuality; that might have provided the film with more focus, and elevated its most thoughtful moments.
Like many music documentaries of this ilk, the archival footage, most of which is widely available and has been featured in various other documentaries or compilations, is the big draw. It’s unquestionably electric—there’s still nothing like watching him actually yowl “a wop-bop-a-loo-mop, alop-bam-boom!” or bang on the piano like it’s a drum. Even the snippets of his various interviews, however inconsistent they may be, portray the man as a magnetic, self-possessed figure who cut a swathe through 20th-century norms. While I Am Everything does an adequate job of explaining Little Richard, it can’t hold a candle to actually watching him do his thing. Every time the film cuts away to an ethnologist detailing the historical milieu or Billy Porter earnestly describing the effect Little Richard had on his career, it ironically paints the man as a relic rather than situating him as a present-day concern.
Little Richard had to witness his career become sidelined in real time as many of his contemporaries profited from, and were lauded for, his achievements. I Am Everything does its damnedest to try to rectify this inequity, but only serves to create greater distance between him and his audience.