The king of rock ‘n’ roll didn’t die at Graceland in 1977. He died just three years ago in Tullahoma, Tennessee, and he never really got the crown he deserved. That’s the persuasive case made by Lisa Cortés’ documentary “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” an insightful biography of an unlikely hero who emerged in the buttoned-down Eisenhower era. Cortés argues that Little Richard created the template for the rock icon and she’s got the receipts, tracing his musical and stylistic influences through everyone from the Beatles to David Bowie, Elton John and Lizzo. If there was a king, he was it. “Sorry, y’all. It wasn’t Elvis,” contributor Billy Porter notes dryly. Appropriate for a member of rock royalty, Little Richard was a personal mess. He alternated from flamboyant, orgy-attending, shirtless singer to reserved Christian fundamentalist who declared rock was “devil’s music.”
This film drives directly into the contradiction. We go from Richard Penniman’s poor home in Macon, Georgia, as one of 12 kids, getting his minister father’s disapproval for being different — and later, of course, approval once his son was making money — to his rise as the undercelebrated architect of rock. But Cortés’ film is also the story of American rock itself, the way transistor radios allowed teens in the ‘50s to rebel against their parents’ staid music and how Black music was appropriated by white bands. Little Richard arguably suffered the most — his howl absorbed, his piano-pounding adopted, his androgynous look swiped. “The system didn’t like it,” he says in an old interview. “I was not supposed to be the hero for their kids.” Instead, he was covered — and erased — by Pat Boone and Elvis. The film includes new tributes by scholars and fellow artists like Mick Jagger, Nona Hendryx, Nile Rodgers, Tom Jones and director John Waters, who says that his pencil-thin mustache is a “twisted tribute” to Little Richard. Cortés leans into the analogy of Little Richard as a meteor arriving — a comet, a quasar, a Big Bang, his DNA everywhere.
She celebrates the oddity that one of rock’s greatest pioneers in the pre-Civil Rights era was a Black, gay man. His rise was that rare time in America when you could ingratiate yourself to the mainstream by exaggerating your queerness. But below that pompadour and pancake makeup was danger for the status quo. Little Richard was making music that broke down the walls of segregation and celebrated sex, all kinds of sex. Take his early hit “Tutti Frutti,” with its memorable call of “wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom.” It started off as a celebration of anal sex. (Early lyrics were “Tutti Frutti/Good bootie” and “If it’s tight/ It’s alright.”) That’s right: One of rock’s greatest hits began life as what would have then been considered a transgressive record. A string of hits with double-entendres followed, providing the foundation of rock music: “Lucille,” “Keep A Knockin’,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” That Little Richard could not later feel comfortable in his queerness emerges as a tragedy. Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is how Little Richard build his own persona. We learn he was part of a drag act early on, and was influenced by Billy Wright ‘s high pompadour, pencil mustache and thick makeup, as well as Esquerita ‘s piano-playing style.
To this amalgam, he added the piano stylings of Ike Turner and the singing characteristics of such gospel artists as Marion Williams, Brother Joe May and Clara Ward. He made all this gumbo uniquely his own, but the filmmakers don’t always make it clear how his borrowing was different from when white acts later stole from him. With all this star power, the film is also marred somewhat by the filmmakers’ use of staged modern-day performances by up-and-coming artists in empty clubs honoring Little Richard, plus the heavy use of swirling star dust as graphic motif, a touch of magical realism that seems unnecessary. The last third of the film is Little Richard seeking the respect he had earned u ntil his death in 2020. While he, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino are credited with bringing what was once called “race music” into the mainstream, Little Richard is still with us: It’s hard not to see him everywhere, from Prince to Harry Styles to Lil Nas X. Let him have the final word. In the film’s last sequence, Little Richard says he hopes what he did in his career can spread: “Just carry the good word over the world.”