Documentary Review: “Little Richard: I Am Everything”

He was the Alpha, the Founder, “the originator, the ARCHITECT” of ‘rock’n roll.” Just ask him.

“I’m an NOT conceited,” the flamboyant, brash and hilarious Little Richard Penniman said to almost every interviewer who ever basked in his presence. “I am CONVINCED.”

Animated, outspoken, wild-eyed and bawdy, a maniac onstage and a scandal waiting to happen off, Penniman bridged the gap between racy “race music” and the raucous, embryonic sound that invented the idea of “teenagers.”

Ripped-off by record labels, too often downplayed in many a “History of Rock” account in book or film, does he finally get his due in Lisa Cortes’ new documentary, “Little Richard: I Am Everything?” Yes he does.

A tidal wave of all-star testimonials endorse the many ways he impacted the culture. The film samples the many times Richard himself made his case as that “originator and ARCHITECT” of the music form that lasted long enough to earn its own lavish Hall of Fame.

But historians, social scholars, gay icons and others also paint a picture of a seriously-conflicted figure whose Christian fundamentalism reared up repeatedly over the years.

The mercurial Richard left music, not far from his peak fame, to enroll in college to pursue his original vocation, preaching.

“I’m going to the Lord,” he said.

He came out of the closet, but would repudiate his sexuality and his music off and on in his later decades. The gay community side-eyed him every time he did, but people like Billy Porter appear here to express an understanding of the conflict that raged within a gay Black man of his era.

The veteran producer (“Precious”) and documentary director (“The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion” and “All In: The Fight for Democracy”) Cortes tracks a life that began in working poverty, one of twelve children of a washerwoman and preacher/juke joint owner and sometime bootlegger. Pretty much from birth, the boy was different.

“MY daddy said ‘I wanted SEVEN sons and you’re MESSING that up!'”

We see who influenced him as a performer, from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Lloyd Price and Billy Wright, the chitlin’ circuit drag act performer whom Richard borrowed from most freely. And then we hear, from the horses’ mouths, the rockers who borrowed from Richard — David Bowie and those lads from Liverpool whom Richard dragged to Hamburg, Germany with him.

Paul McCartney watched his act, night after night, and emulated his “WOOOoooo” shrieks, and freely admits getting lessons on that. On tape, John Lennon remembers being “almost paralyzed with adoration” in his presence.

Richard launched a British tour with a show so over-the-top it started a riot. Even as fickle teen tastes changed, he did not and attracted adoring crowds to shows all through the ’60s.

Scores of TV interviews are sampled, capturing his smiling outrageousness in all its glory — self-adoring, comically snapping “Shut UP” at interviewers and studio audiences that might not be as quick to accept his “beauty” and his ego at face value.

We learn about his unlikely culture-shifting rise to fame from childhood neighbors and relatives, and his lasting influence from Nona Hendryx, Tom Jones, Nile Rodgers and even John Waters.

 “Little Richard’s mustache,” Baltimore enthusiast and gay filmmaker Waters gushes, “I wear TO THIS DAY in twisted tribute to him!”

In covering all the bases, the film’s energy can’t help but flag in the later acts. But Cortes has made an impressive music history that restores a “king” to his rightful place in rock royalty, one that acknowledges that everything outrageous about the music and the people who perform it, the stuff “your parents hated” about it, as Waters puts it, started with Little Richard Penniman.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Little Richard Penniman, Bo Didley, Nona Hendryx, Paul McCartney, Billy Porter, Tom Jones, Nile Rodgers and John Waters.

Credits: Directed by Lisa Cortes. A Magnolia/CNN Films release.

Running time: 1:38


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.

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