“I’m the emancipator. I’m the architect. I’m the one that started it all.” As the various figures speak about the legacy musical figure in Little Richard: I Am Everything, you find out that there existed an instance of duality that raged inside of him. You have the boisterous, flamboyant torch bearer of rock-n-roll music. Then, there’s the religiously grounded Richard Wayne Penniman, who grew up impoverished, singing in church in Macon, Georgia – with a strict minister for a father that did not approve of his queerness (he would later welcome him back into the family home). Considering the overall view of what Little Richard has left us, it might be hard to fathom how this made one of the most influential musicians and culture.
Director Lisa Cortés displays how rare the collision of influences and inner strife with the dispersions of galaxies and stars exploding. As much as his father urged him to sing quietly, there was something in Richard’s soul that was waiting to burst out. It did so in the fashion of songs like “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti Frutti” and a desire to be “The Living Flame.” Then, the other side of Richard went on the David Letterman show in 1982 to “renounce” his queerness and parrot conservative talking points. Watching the battles this one man faced becomes fascinating and sad.
Richard’s audacity to be who he is helped him become more than his disability and the abuse from those who hated his lifestyle. Cortés put things in a broader context – focusing on the segregation of the South in the 40s’ and 50s’ and the underground drag clubs and speakeasies. As scholar Zandria Robinson states, “The South is the birthplace for all things queer, the different, the non-normative.” Richard operated in this space of non-conformality. One of his favorite singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, took the soul and spirit of Gospel music and infused it into the beginnings of what we think of as Rock-and-Roll music. Given all the places he’s been, it makes sense that this figure is born.
Within I Am Everything, Cortés makes an informative and poignant contrast between influences. The documentary pays homage to queer Black icons such as Ma Rainey and Esquerita. Instead, they are described as mirrors showing Richard who he was. It’s something the artist continued to fight with given the various sabbaticals he took – from being a student at Oakwood College, getting married, and up until the last days of his life renouncing. It often felt like Richard lived between two worlds – something the documentary tries to chronicle the best it can. However, there is undo pressure being a Black queer artist – a more significant concept; I Am Everything only scratches the surface of. There’s more to why some may perceive Richard as not strong enough to bear the brunt of the disgusting slurs sent his way.
Richard refused to imitate the voice of legends like BB King and be himself. Despite how powerful the magnitude of his individuality and sound, it was still cannibalized by white artists. I Am Everything has accounts from Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, and David Bowie, who praise Richard for his influence (there’s even a Beatles cover). But there’s still the horrible irony of Pat Boone doing a “Tutti Frutti” cover and making more profit.
Richard never let you forget his importance in his popular music's DNA. Cortés doesn’t either, as she chronicles the lifelong battle that Richard waged not to be forgotten – and he shouldn’t. When the clip of Richard accepting the 1997 American Music Award of Merit comes, there’s an urge to say FINALLY! Some people are meant to shine brightly no matter their circumstances – even through various inner and societal conflicts. Little Richard was way ahead of his time in many aspects.
But there’s an aspect of I Am Everything where you marvel at the legendary artist's outward confidence and feel low because even with the extravagant mirror suits, there seems to be a buffer to it. It’s a truthful documentary that shouts, dances, and mires itself in thoughtful contemplation.