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Thursday, September 28, 2023
Sept. 28, 2023

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How ‘Little Richard: I Am Everything’ restores the rock ‘n’ roll icon to his throne

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Director Lisa Cortés says there’s one thing she’s often heard from people after they’ve watched “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” her new documentary on the colorful, complicated pioneer of early rock ‘n’ roll.

“People always say, ‘I learned so much about him and I thought I knew him,’” Cortés says on a recent video call about the film, which arrived in theaters and on-demand recently. “It’s quite a revelatory journey.”

It was the same for Cortés, too, the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated filmmaker says of her journey to fully understand the life and career of the performer born as Richard Penniman.

“I didn’t learn about him and all of the layers until I made this film,” Cortés says. “My introduction was the music, the joy of dancing around to ‘Tutti Frutti’ with my cousins as a kid.

“Even to this day, I can put ‘Tutti Frutti’ on for my niece, who’s 3 years old, and she loses her mind and starts singing along and gets super excited,” she says. “Because there’s something in the music that’s so joyous.”

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” seeks to place the singer of hits such as “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Lucille” on the throne as the true king of rock ‘n’ roll, a title that eluded him during his lifetime.

Archival interviews with Penniman, who died at 87 in May 2020, show it’s clear he seldom felt he’d received his due. Through new interviews with a host of entertainers such as Mick Jagger, Billy Porter, Nile Rodgers and John Waters – all of whom profess their love, admiration and emulation of him – it’s clear many others agree.

“My connection was solely the music, and then seeing him on talk shows, where you never got a sense of his contributions to rock and roll,” Cortés says. “He was there to be fun and almost be a comic foil in a way.

“And so making the film was a tremendous opportunity to see how someone born in Macon, Georgia in 1932 was so bold in their vision,” she says. “Someone who was so provocative and transgressive that they not only ignited this music form but had a lasting effect on so many artists who followed him.”

In an interview edited for length and clarity, Cortés talked about the film and the role that God, sex and religion played in Little Richard’s life.

Q: Tell me how you came to make this film.

A: Well, here’s the thing. Richard passed away in May of 2020, which is the height of the pandemic. Whenever somebody dies and they are an artist who has such tremendous hits, you hear their music all the time. So at a time that was very dark and challenging, I heard this music that was so joyous.

That brought back memories of being a kid dancing around with my cousins in the summer. And I wanted to learn more. I was like, ‘Wow, I wonder if there’s a doc on him,’ and then discovered there wasn’t.

Q: So you were inspired to make one?

A: I think I was especially intrigued when he passed away. You’ve got Bob Dylan giving tribute. You have [Foo Fighters’] Dave Grohl. You have Elton John. You have so many artists who are like, ‘He was the king, he was so important.’ Bruce Springsteen gave him a tribute.

Then I did a quick Google search. I’m looking at the YouTube of him inducting Otis Redding into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which is him actually inducting himself. That’s a very poignant piece of footage. He is calling out these stars in the audience, and he’s saying, ‘Why have you never given me anything? Why are you not recognizing me? I gave you your start.’

It’s humorous, but it’s also very painful because it’s an act of desperation. And I think many of us tap into this idea of being erased. Of being a part of something and losing that foothold.

Q: Why do you think he didn’t get the recognition he deserved? We know one reason is that the work of Black artists was often undermined as white artists rerecorded their work, often enjoying greater commercial support and success with white audiences. How did you come to see it?

A: I think you can’t deny that race and his queerness, that is a combination that was so threatening. The idea of putting a queer Black man in the ‘50s on a pedestal, you know, was not going to happen. It’s unfortunate because those are the things that make him so incredible. That he’s a Black queer man who is elevating this art form, and adding so much passion and potency.

Q: Another fascinating part of the film is its exploration of his struggle to reconcile his passions for God, sex and rock ‘n’ roll. At different points in his life, he comes out as gay and then goes back in the closet; he plays rock and roll and then renounces it as the devil’s music, and so on.

A: I think most people don’t know that the renunciation of his queerness in the ‘80s is predated by his renunciation of rock and roll in the ‘60s. It is this really tragic pendulum that he’s on, and it’s this tension that is pulling him back and forth for a great portion of his life.

That was something that really stood out immediately when I spent the time doing my research. Because you see that he really is a divided soul.

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Q: There’s so much wonderful footage in the film of Little Richard performing and giving interviews, things I’d never seen before. Are there things you found in your research that were particularly special finds for you?

A: I think it’s interesting when he tells us about his time after he’s kicked out of his home for being queer. That in downtown Macon, Georgia in the 1940s, there’s a place called Ann’s Tic Toc Room. A place where queer people, Black and white people, came together.

Because that is not in our kind of imagination about what could be possible in the South during this period. Homosexuality is illegal. Homophobia is rampant. But that he finds this community in this small city was pretty interesting.

I think the second part is when Little Richard tells us, ‘I go on the road, on the Chitlin’ Circuit, and I dress up as a woman.’ It tells you so much about all these different places and experiences that he is pulling from to create this musical gumbo.

Q: I was also fascinated by the musical dream sequences you included with musicians like singer-songwriter Valerie June, singer-pianist Cory Henry and gospel singer John P. Kee.

A: From the beginning of the project I knew I wanted to create dreamscapes. I see them as these seminal moments in Richard’s life, where these portals of possibility open. You know, he meets Sister Rosetta Tharpe (portrayed by Valerie June), who says, ‘Come sing with me,’ and then after being on stage with her at the Macon Auditorium, Richard’s like, ‘I want to go be a star.’

I chose all of those artists because they are a part of the legacy. The amazing Valerie June talked about her love of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The same thing with Cory Henry, who started in the church but now not only can play gospel music but jazz and hip-hop and R&B and pop. And, of course, John P. Kee knew Little Richard.

So each of them felt connected to him in some way. And the same goes for everybody else who was interviewed in the film. They had to have an intimate connection.

And the people who were interviewed were immediately like, ‘I want to talk about Little Richard because the world needs to know what he did for me.’ And in turn for music and culture.

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