“It ain’t what you do,” Little Richard once sang, “it’s the way how you do it”. And no one did it quite like the wildly influential Georgia Peach, who smashed societal norms as a bisexual Black man in the mid-1950s, shaking up the supposedly straight decade with songs about bum sex (‘Tutti Frutti’) and drag queens (‘Lucille’). If you’ve ever lost your shit to Paul McCartney’s holler or swooned over Harry Styles’ androgyny, you’ve got Richard Penniman to thank.
Yet when Little Richard passed away in 2020 at the age of 87, there was a sense that he’d never been fully recognised for his unparalleled innovations. This is where Little Richard: I Am Everything, the sensational (and suitably stylish) new documentary from Lisa Cortes, comes in. Cortes ropes in an impressive cast of players – including A-listers, scholars and family members – to relay this complex tale in as nuanced a way imaginable. Mick Jagger bashfully acknowledges he copped Richard’s loose-limbed stage presence, while cousins Stanley Stewart and Newton Collier offer intimate recollections.
For the first hour, Cortes faithfully traces the young Richard’s ascent from the southern city of Macon, Georgia to vertigo-inducing success in Hollywood and an infamous show at Sydney Stadium in October 1957, when he announced his abdication from rock ’n’ roll in favour of the Church. The director, though, is not content with simple archive material and talking heads, instead employing a dazzling box of tricks such as the kaleidoscopic silver lens through which we view Richard’s biggest influences – including ‘40s superstar Louis Jordan and gospel shouter Sister Rosetta Tharpe – working their magic.
Cortes presents Richard as a Zelig-like figure who crops up at key cultural moments in the 20th century, always finding a way to reinvent himself as he returns sporadically to rock ’n’ roll. He knocks about with a pre-fame Beatles in the early ‘60s and, in the ‘70s, an era transformed by the sexual revolution, amps up his gender-bending image with glitzy capes and mirrored catsuits. Then there’s that strange period in the ‘90s where retro-fetishism coalesced into a new kind of ‘50s kitsch; here Richard sends himself up in TV sitcoms such as Full House.
This leaves the director with a great deal to cram into the film’s second half; inevitably some of it bottle-necks. Aside from its dizzying visual language, though, what sets Cortes’ film apart is the forthright way in which she addresses the less palatable aspects of Richard’s persona. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, his religious fervour had the habit of tipping into outright bigotry as he renounced his sexuality; one painful chat show clip sees him claim that God made “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”.
While Cortes does not excuse this behaviour, her contributors express disappointment in but forgiveness towards a conflicted figure clearly terrified by his own supposed transgressions. In the end, there’s no doubt you’re looking at someone who, as academic Jason King puts it, “represented a complete upheaval of the existing social system” – and that we’re still enjoying the fruits of that bravery.
Jordan Bassett’s book ‘Here’s Little Richard’, which is part of Bloomsbury Publishing’s 33 1/3 series, is due for publication on November 2
- Director: Lisa Cortes
- Featuring: Mick Jagger, Billy Porter, John Waters
- Release date: April 28 (in cinemas and on digital)