THE STORY – This celebration of Little Richard reveals the Black queer origins of rock ‘n’ roll, finally exploding the whitewashed canon of American pop music. Through archival and performance footage, the revolutionary icon’s life unspools with all of its switchbacks and contradictions.
THE CAST – Little Richard, Tom Jones, Mick Jagger & Paul McCartney
THE TEAM – Lisa Cortés (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
Last year, the world fell in love with “The King of Rock’ n’ Roll” all over again thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic biopic “Elvis” (and Austin Butler’s electrifying lead performance). That lovefest has continued into 2023, with the film proving to be a major awards contender, particularly in Best Actor for the aforementioned Butler. However, for all the praise afforded to Luhrmann’s sumptuous style and Butler’s exhilarating embodiment of the very soul and spirit of Elvis Presley, one fair critique that has been levied at the film is how it may have glossed over just how much Presley took from the Black music scene in order to popularize said music for a mass audience in America once it came from a more “acceptable” artist. While the exact nature of the Black community’s influence on Elvis’ music is debated — was it simple sampling or more malicious theft? — what can’t be denied is that Black artists laid the groundwork for Elvis’ popularity, and though he may be seen as the “king” of rock ‘n’ roll, he was not the “architect — that would be none other than Little Richard.
At the heart of Lisa Cortés’ “Little Richard: I Am Everything” is this central concept: that the entirety of rock ‘n’ roll can be traced back to Little Richard and that his impact on the genre has been erased and whitewashed by history, beginning all the way back in 1955 with his first major hit, “Tutti Frutti” (which was subsequently covered by the like of Pat Boone and, you guessed it, Elvis Presley). Over the course of 98 minutes, Cortés takes us on a journey from Richard’s tumultuous childhood all the way to his death in 2020, never shying away from any of the ups and downs in his career while simultaneously emphasizing all the ways in which he shaped modern music and all how his contributions to the medium have been obscured. The film is dually insightful and infuriating, filling in gaps in his history that most casual fans might not even know. It makes for a maddening moviegoing experience when one realizes just how much of his genius had been hidden from us (either because of his “flamboyant” personality, his proclivity to sing about sex in a time in which that was still taboo, or — more simply — his race).
You also can’t talk about Little Richard without mentioning the revolutionary representation he offered queer people (and queer people of color, in particular) and how he struggled with his sexuality over the years and always seemed to alternate between embracing his identity and abject rejection of the community that made him a star and supported him since the start. He was a man full of contradictions, someone, who inspired many to accept their sexual orientation while simultaneously striving to stray away from his own as his fame grew and the hate became too hard to live with. And, refreshingly, Cortés and co. never try to hide that. In spite of all he has done for music (and all that he deserved to be credited for but was not — a wrong this documentary seeks to right), he was not a perfect person, and “Little Richard: I Am Everything” blends the good with the bad to give us a pretty comprehensive portrait of this empowering, elusive, and eternally eccentric artist when all is said and done. This is a rarity these days when it seems like most documentaries’ first priority is to deify their subjects and downplay any deficiencies they may have had. But, in reality, no one human can live up to such sanctimonious hype, and the effort to achieve authenticity here is admirable.
Where “Little Richard: I Am Everything” stumbles on occasion is with its presentation of all this information. This is a CNN Films documentary intended for eventual release on HBO Max, and it very much feels like a conventional streaming documentary, never breaking from the traditional format featuring talking heads, chronological storytelling, and the like. This gets the job done, but it does feel like there was an opportunity here to employ a style that aligned more with Little Richard’s own creative identity, like how Brett Morgen’s “Moonage Daydream” last year made use of erratic editing and a psychedelic fusion of news and concert footage to place us in the perspective of David Bowie for two and a half hours, instead of having other people simply tell us about him the whole time. Little Richard was just as unique and distinctive an artist as Bowie, and it’s hard not to feel like he deserved a documentary as unique and distinctive, too. Still, what we got is still a thoroughly researched, emotionally resonant, and often riveting look at all the layers of this icon’s life and all the ways he influenced — and continues to influence — modern music. At the end of the day, it ultimately does right by the “Architect of Rock and Roll’s” lively legacy.