A Black man from a religious family in the Deep South, an underground drag performer and a rock ‘n’ roll luminary: one man, artist Little Richard, embodied these disparate roles.
Directed by Oscar nominee and Emmy-winner Lisa Cortés, “Little Richard: I Am Everything” unpacks the musical contributions, flamboyant persona and conflicting identities of the titular rock icon and brings light to the appropriation of Richard’s revolutionary work by his white contemporaries.
The music legend was born Richard Wayne Penniman in 1932, and his career took off in the mid-1950s. He subverted his era’s norms: Richard was openly gay, and his signature look included a pompadour, heavy makeup and sequined garb.
Relying on archival footage of concerts and interviews, the documentary considers Richard as a disruptor.
“I was especially interested in looking at not only Richard, the icon, and his contributions to music, but also to culture as a transgressive figure,” Cortés said in an interview with Variety.
Throughout his lifetime, Richard grappled with his queerness in the context of his religious faith. He publicly renounced his sexuality and the LGBTQ+ community at large and relinquished secular music and his lifestyle altogether in favor of a two-year stint as a theology major at Oakwood College in 1960.
Richard reversed his stances multiple times during his life, which is the very complexity that drew Cortés to tell Richard’s story.
“It wasn’t a three-act structure, but it was this pendulum,” Cortés said in an interview with Deadline. “There was this man who was born in the segregated South, who bucked so many norms and at the same time was having an internal battle between the secular and the profane. It was this push-pull throughout his life that he had to navigate.”
While often celebrated, “I Am Everything” also received criticism following its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January due to its superficial consideration of Richard’s queerness.
“For a film so interested in Richard’s legacy as a queer Black man, that queerness only exists in regards to his appearance,” Indiewire film critic Robert Daniels said.
Even so, Cortés is fully invested in illuminating Richard’s undervalued influence on popular music.
She interviewed heavy-hitters like Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, whose bands opened for Richard early in their careers, as a means to understand how Richard provided a platform and inspiration for other artists — and how white rock ‘n’ rollers such as Elvis Presley achieved greater recognition than Richard, even though Richard was the innovator.
Richard’s varied struggles and subversions are relevant today. Many Black artists are still subject to inequitable record deals, and queer people’s rights to gender expression are at risk. Cortés recognizes this.
“Rock ’n’ roll, race and queerness are core to our culture, but also to our culture wars. I think that so many of the things that Richard approached and challenged we are still dealing with,” Cortés said. “The gender fluidity that Richard displayed isn’t new, and it wasn’t new then. It just wasn’t spoken of, and it wasn’t contextualized … it seems that in our contemporary culture, some people are still not at ease with it.”
While audiences may walk away from “I Am Everything” with questions, the documentary will certainly inspire a greater appreciation of his ahead-of-his-time stage persona and struggles and his status as an underrated juggernaut of rock music.
“Little Richard: I Am Everything” will open the Oxford Film Festival on Thursday, March 2, at 8 p.m. at the Malco Oxford Commons Cinema in Auditorium 2.
More information, including tickets, can be found on the Oxford Film Festival website.