Little Richard: I Am Everything Joyfully Honors The Big Bang of Rock

Movies Reviews Little Richard
Little Richard: I Am Everything Joyfully Honors The Big Bang of Rock

How do we honor a blueprint? Followed as they are over and over again, year after year, decades upon decades, they soon become taken for granted as part of the everyday. They are the air we breathe and the cosmos as we know it. Lisa Cortés sets out her microscope and her telescope to pay tribute to one of rock n’ roll’s foundational architects with her documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything. Elegantly shifting her lens between Little Richard’s biography and the history of the music that sprung forth from him, Cortés traces a nearly impossible trajectory without losing a grounded sense of context.

Little Richard Wayne Penniman of Macon, Georgia, was born with a constellation of identities that would set him apart forever. Black, poor, queer, femme and disabled, Richard quickly formed his own sense of the world and how to move through it. He taught himself music and how to survive with equal bravado. With an exceptional arrangement of interviews from artists that knew him or were inspired by him alongside brilliant critical commentary from folks like scholar Zandria Robinson, ethnomusicologist Fredara Hadley and musician Jason King, we get a detailed impression of a figure, his talents and his contexts.

Little Richard exploded onto the scene when young listeners, both Black and white, were looking for something new. Combining blues, boogie-woogie and Baptist church elements, Richard’s music was unlike anything before it. His joyous sound and incandescent stage presence made folks want to copy him, often without any credit or compensation. Little Richard’s legacy is invisible because white capitalists in the music industry “obliterated” his art and image. But Cortés is clever. She uses montage to look forward and outward from Little Richard. She collages moments of creation and inspiration to shatter her otherwise linear structure. It allows us to see the fractals that radiate from this singular artist who was unlike anyone before or since.

With all the ways Little Richard defied the norm, Cortés and her team rightfully spend time defining and discussing queerness not just as sexuality but as a non-normative “presence” in the world—a way of being that defies accepted categories. Such a mature and critical consideration of queerness helps us understand Little Richard and the public’s reaction to him. Richard guides us through Southern drag clubs of the 1940s and ‘50s, the gay “speakeasies” that followed, and into the sexual “revolution” of the 1960s and ‘70s. He had lived amongst other queer people, which made him proud and self-possessed, so proud he could barely hide the light that shone because of it. He was among the first celebrities to be loud and proud of their queerness and sexuality. Cortés and crew never let us forget that he was queer history just as much as rock n’ roll history. But being flamboyant and Black made him a target of envy and revulsion. 

Richard sometimes turned this revulsion on himself. Throughout his life, Little Richard would renounce his queerness and rock n’ roll lifestyle, retreating into faith and dogma. It is where he went when times were hard, and he was scared. Instead of trying to reconcile the conservative streaks in Richard’s life, Cortés genuinely attempts to understand and hold all of Little Richard’s complexities at once. It’s a tough contradiction to juggle, one that would have been more successful if Cortés had made stronger links between racism and homophobia. I Am Everything treats these two systems of oppression as separate, but they are quite intertwined. By delving more into how racism reacts to Black femmes (especially if they’re talented), we would have gotten a complete picture of the obstacles Little Richard faced. We’re asked a lot of provocative questions throughout this insightful documentary, but many go unanswered. The most resounding is “What does it mean to say that a Black queer artist was the foundation of rock n’ roll?”

Cortés is more focused on how we tell the story than why we must tell it. She’s telling Little Richard’s story because it still needs telling. By dialing into Richard’s visual metaphor of himself as “the living flame”–a “quasar” of the music industry—Lisa Cortés crafts his biography as a creation myth. As I Am Everything poetically demonstrates, Little Richard’s entrance into the musical void was The Big Bang of rock, a collisional spark that generated so much heat and joy that it created a new genre. A new sensation. Best of all, it’s a sensation we can return to over and over when we listen to his music or hear him in the inspiration of others. Little Richard’s gift is infinite, and we honor it best by sharing it, living truthfully and letting it all hang out.

Director: Lisa Cortés
Release Date: April 21, 2023

B.L. Panther is a culture writer, scholar and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes for outlets such as Honey Literary Journal and The Spool, where they’re also the cohost of The Meh-thod Podcast discussing great actors in less-than-great films. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps and doing nothing at all.

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