It’s easy to think of Little Richard as one of those sweet, toothless nostalgia acts who made toe-tappers for grandparents about his poodle-skirted girlfriends and their apparently mind-blowing kisses and hugs. The transfixing new documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything should hopefully atomize such foolishness. The doc convinced me that Little Richard, born Richard Wayne Penniman, was not merely a musical genius but also a cultural figure so transgressive and complex that we still don’t have the right words for him. Did you know the lyrics of his first hit, “Tutti Frutti,” were originally about anal sex? It came out in 1955.
Director Lisa Cortés’ I Am Everything, which just debuted at the opening night of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, sets out to retroactively embrace Little Richard as queer — a phrase that would have been pejorative in his time, but has been reclaimed as celebratory and widely encompassing in ours. Early in the film, one of the many scholars interviewed, Zandria Robinson, argues that queerness is “not just about sexuality, but about a presence in a space that is different from what we require or expect — different from the norm.” I worried a little — doesn’t that sound like a meaningless definition of queerness taken up by dull heterosexuals appropriating the real struggles of LGBTQ+ people? Was this going to be another well-intentioned but boring movie that reframes some largely forgotten, no-longer-cool figure as a modern-day precursor to something now widely accepted, in order to show that they were ahead of their time all along?
Little Richard was so far ahead of his time that you could argue he helped invent his time — and this movie is not one of those movies. It is refreshingly, intoxicatingly comfortable with imperfection and ambiguity. It allows that Little Richard can be a queer icon despite publicly asserting later in life that while he had been gay in his youth, he no longer was. It is an astounding record of how much a person or culture can quickly change: The flamboyance that could have gotten him arrested or murdered in the 1950s would be embraced today as a joyous display of a man living his truth. His later claims that he had left homosexuality behind, with God’s help, probably played well with the Reagan era’s so-called Moral Majority, but seem very sad now. He kept making them almost up until his death, in 2020.
A lesser, more airbrushed movie also would have conveniently skipped the fact of Ike Turner’s influence on Little Richard’s piano playing (and all of rock n roll) because of his reprehensible abuse of Tina Turner. But I Am Everything is grown-up enough to just let certain facts exist, and trust viewers to assess them. This is never more true than in Cortés and her scholars’ meticulous, rigorous examination of the many factors that made Little Richard who he was: a man from small-town Macon, Georgia, who grew up in the church, with a father who was both a minister and nightclub owner, who kicked Richard out of the house for being gay; a drag performer on the s0-called Chitlin’ Circuit; a student of Sister Rosetta Tharpe; Black sex-symbol who amusingly accepted the hurled underwear of young women of all races; a lover of gospel music; a lover of a so-called “female impersonator,” to use the parlance of the time; a direct influence on Elvis Presley (who covered his music) to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (who opened and learned from him) to Jimi Hendrix (who was in his band) to Prince to David Bowie to Elton John, all of whom proudly imitated him. By the 1980s, he was using his occasional award-show appearances to criticize pretty much the entire music industry for ripping him off. Messy? Maybe. Accurate? Absolutely.
It would shortchange Little Richard to just namecheck a handful of massive artists who owe him a debt, because the truth is that every modern musician does. He was a genuine rock star before we used that term to refer to everyone from realtors to spreadsheet managers. Elvis Presley shocked people with the wiggles, sure, but Little Richard was so different from the norm that he makes Marilyn Manson seem like Pat Boone (another guy who covered Little Richard’s music). He was astonishingly brave to live his life so flamboyantly in the 1950s, a time when many music venues and entire states were deeply unwelcoming to Black musicians, and rock musicians, to say nothing of Black gay rock musicians. The film not only takes us inside the mostly hidden LGBTQ+ subculture of the pre-1950s Deep South, but also shows us how Little Richard laid it all out for the mainstream.
In one of the film’s many wild twists, we learn that Little Richard’s flamboyance may actually have made him more acceptable to the 1950s white mainstream, not less: A Black man singing brazenly about sex to white girls would ordinarily have seemed unthreatening, but the guardians of white virtue perceived him as unthreatening. “I wore the make-up so that white men wouldn’t think I was after the white girls. It made things easier for me, plus it was colorful too,” he was once quoted as saying.
The film is upfront about some aspects of his life that are shocking today — his marriage to a 16-year-old girl, for example, who later called him the love of her life — and Little Richard is frank about his youthful fondness for “orgies.” It leaves out unsavory facts like a 1962 arrest for spying on men in urinals. But look: He lived in a different time, when he was told he was going to hell because of who he was, and some of the people who were supposed to love him rejected him instead, and the people he wanted were the ones everyone else told him to reject. He was confused and lived a complicated life and made mistakes. The documentary gives him a grace he richly deserves.
Main image: Little Richard in Little Richard: I Am Everything, courtesy of Sundance.