Richard Wayne Penniman, also known as Little Richard, is considered by many to be the “Architect of Rock and Roll.” In the documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything, director Lisa Cortés gives us an informative and thorough primer on the blueprints, the foundation, and the history of a legendary and storied establishment.
From the very beginning, Cortés’ choices of interview clips let me know I was in for an accurate overview with some spunk and style. (I mean, how could you not exude style when discussing Little Richard?) The quote that won me over was Richard referring to himself as “[…]bronze Liberace.” There are plenty of other fantastic quotes in that opening montage, and the tempo and jovial vibe in this section wisely belie some of the troubles of Richard’s life that the uninitiated may not be aware of until they’re discussed further into the film.
His self-expression seemed to be on a constant pendulum between two diametrically opposed influences. On one shoulder were the fire-and-brimstone preaching and rousing gospel music he heard as a child in Macon, Georgia. On the other were his early rock-and-roll influences as he branched into his musical career in the 1950s, along with his queerness and affinity for what was considered more exclusively feminine at the time.
His father expelled him from the home for his being different. Richard then lived with his aunt for a time and found refuge in a clandestinely queer-friendly kind of speakeasy. One of his idols, the great Rosetta Tharp, indulged his challenge to a sing-off at the Macon City Auditorium where he worked as a teenager, and this was the first opening to his singing rock-and-roll professionally.
As a young adult, he sometimes performed in drag and learned from musicians like Esquerita and the openly gay Billy Wright. But at that time, he and his compatriots were only touring on the segregated black circuits of the American south. When he was finally able to record “Tutti Frutti” (the original lyrics of which were about anal sex), that’s when he started to break barriers and shine in a way that hit the mainstream. In the segregated south, he and his band would sometimes have to play one show for a white audience and another for a black audience, but often the two crowds would mix at their shows because the music was just so lively and infectious.
Over the course of his musical career, he would return to his Christian roots numerous times, making gospel records and swearing off the sexually liberated rock-and-roll lifestyle, and then returning to the party when it suited him. Although it glosses over much of the partying and drug use, the film explores the tension between Richard’s two worlds very well, offering a portrait of him as a good but conflicted man while underscoring the LGBTQ community’s understandable difficulty accepting many of his public statements.
The film’s final chapter also has a deep well of material to draw from. A long period from the 1980s to the early 2010s re-established Little Richard as the influence he truly was on all of rock-and-roll and American popular music, as well as a unique and essential cultural icon. But his queerness was never quite foregrounded the way it perhaps should have been, although by this point everybody knew. Ethnomusicologist Fredara Hadley asks the essential question toward the film’s conclusion: “What would it do to the American mythology of rock music to say that its pioneers were black queer people?” | George Napper