'Little Richard: I Am Everything' - documentary of the rock music icon tells all

  • by Cornelius Washington
  • Monday April 10, 2023
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Little Richard
Little Richard

Some people, regardless of sexual orientation, saw Richard Wayne Penniman, known to the world as Little Richard, as a frankly effeminate, bizarre character. However the fact that he shouted from the rooftops loudly and repeatedly that he was the architect of the American music genre rock and roll has always been in varying degrees amusing to annoying.

In the new documentary, "Little Richard: I Am Everything," (Magnolia Pictures) the truth Penniman (Dec. 5, 1932—May 9, 2020) had always proclaimed is made staggeringly clear. He was one of the most influential people of the 20th century.

Born into a large family, Richard's femme demeanor and love of looking beautiful in his mothers curtains, jewelry, and make up soon got him put out of his home by his abusive father, leaving him to live rough while simultaneously longing for a career in show business.

Little Richard in the 1950s  

He began as a drag queen, performing in the nightclubs and honkytonks of what was known across the deep South as the Chitlin Circuit. But with his amazing agile voice and piano playing, he was soon discovered by Sister Rosetta Tharp, the innovative gospel singer and guitarist.

His skills were also honed by singer musicians Billy Wright and Esquerita; all three of these artists were queer. Richard soaked up and seasoned to taste all of these elements of the shadow life of Black culture and the documentary explains it frankly.

After being signed to Specialty Records, he soon stunned the planet with his hit, "Tutti Frutti" a watered-down version of his ode to anal sex. It was the musical equivalent to the Big Bang.

Soon, everything he recorded turned to gold, unfortunately for white artists who covered his hits while he made literally half a penny on every copy sold.

The racism is made abundantly clear throughout the documentary, not only in business but also socially. He was harassed, targeted, and beaten with billy clubs. However, the brutality did not stop him from obliterating racism and segregation with sweat, sawdust and sequins.

He not only discovered iconic mind-bending musicians, singers and performers whose names are quite familiar to the world. He also discovered and nurtured female strippers and transgender artists.

a 1970s interview with Little Richard, seen in the film.  

Sex, drugs, rock & roll
Teen culture was forming, and the film shows the bifurcated ambivalence between white generational ideas about Black people entertaining them with the thing that Richard was the embodiment of; the shiny, sweaty, screaming Black man with his primal African beats, honking horns, manic energy, erotically coded lyrics and lascivious eyes.

The man did his thing his way, with sex, yes, and plenty of it, and with both genders, and drugs, but more important, with rock and roll, in a celebratory interpretation that's still lauded around the world.

The film is packed with archival stills, interviews and performances of Richard as well as wonderful original performances of his work by artists Valerie June, Corey Henry and stunningly, gospel great John P. King.

There is also an excellent array of young Black scholars and critics holding forth with their learned passionate opinions some of whom are queer; Zandria Robinson, Jason King, Tavia Nyong'o, and Fedara Hadley, as well as music stars Billy Porter, Tom Jones, Mick Jagger, Nile Rodgers and Nona Hendrix.

The ever-amusing John Waters tells of his teen years discovering and loving Richard as well as the strikingly beautiful transgender LGBTQ activist and performer Sir Lady Java, who performed and traveled with Richard during his heyday.

Richard comes across as a timeless, extremely charismatic and strong man, constantly speaking truth to power and showing a resilience and work ethic that would slay a rhino throughout decades of ups and downs with his constant internal battle between his religious beliefs and his carnality.

His releasing of burdens had been previously shared in his brutally honest autobiography, "The Life and Times of Little Richard." Its publication put him back into national consciousness as he appeared in movies, commercials, TV shows, tours and concert halls always loud proud and beautiful.

Concert footage included in 'Little Richard: I Am Everything'  

As we say in the African American community, he did "receive his flowers" while he was alive by being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, even though a car accident prevented him from attending.

The most moving part of the documentary is Richard getting a Lifetime Achievement award from the American Music Awards. The documentary shows Richard tearfully accepting the honor while Lionel Richie, Toni Braxton and Celine Dion, among many others, who give him a standing ovation.

Never has a documentary been so dynamic, historic and adoring of a Black queer man. Director Lisa Cortes and her crew are to be commended and applauded for this very moving affirmation of someone who gave himself permission to be free and continues to eternally inspire others to do and be the same.

All hail to the King of Rock and Roll, the Georgia Peach, the Originator, the Emancipator, the Beauty on Duty, Little Richard.

"Little Richard: I Am Everything" screens at The Roxie starting April 11, 3117 16th St. www.roxie.com

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