Little Richard Documentary Tells a Spectacular, Queer and Complicated Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll

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Black-and-white photograph of young Black man combing his pompadour in mirror
Little Richard in 'Little Richard: I Am Everything.' (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Backstage after a typically sweat-drenched show, Little Richard was greeted by a man with a message. “You will always be the true king of rock and roll,” Elvis Presley told him.

That brief royal conclave nails in one line a central theme of Little Richard: I Am Everything, namely that the visionary gay Black singer and pianist from Macon, Georgia has never been rightfully recognized and crowned by the public.

Lisa Cortés’ endlessly entertaining amalgam of onstage roof-raising, backstage frolicking and up-to-the-minute queer academic analysis, screening Tuesday, April 11 at the Roxie, persuasively corrects the pop culture record. The chart-topping reason not to miss her fast and furious film, though, is that Richard Penniman was a world-class drama king.

I mean that as a compliment. In contrast to the way VH1’s much-parodied Behind the Music squeezed every molecule of melodrama, irony and pathos out of the rags-to-Rolls-to-rehab (or death) spiral of countless rock stars, Little Richard: I Am Everything offers the galvanizing spectacle of a man expressing who he was at every moment.

“Who he was” was so complicated, contradictory and confounding on so many levels that it seems that Richard’s one constant was extraordinary self-confidence. (“I’m not conceited. I’m convinced,” he told one TV interviewer.) He was also powered and guided by the God instilled in him as a child and whom he stunningly returned to at the peak of his career, turning his back on “the devil’s music” in 1958.

Black-and-white photo of Black man with both arms raise and hands in peace signs, in spangled vest and pants
Little Richard at Wembley Stadium in London, 1974. (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot; Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Even before the artist hits those heights, Little Richard: I Am Everything is biography, social history and inspirational video rolled into one manic, full-tilt boogie. The early sections recounting Richard’s youthful evolution from church gospel singer to flamboyant front man — informed and influenced by Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s electrified guitar playing, and the pompadours and makeup of Black gay singers Esquerita and Billy Wright — reasserts an often-forgotten Black history of rock and roll.


It’s hard to imagine a garishly dressed gay man in eyeliner tearing it up in Black clubs in the South in the early ’50s. Or that same keyboard-pounding performer getting teenage girls so frenzied they throw their panties onstage. OK, maybe not, for Little Richard’s breakthrough primal singles Tutti Frutti (whose explicit original lyrics were toned down for the record) and Long Tall Sally were adrenalized sexual anthems.

Lusting and letting go were only the most tangible manifestations of the freedom that Little Richard represented and celebrated. (A clip of Pat Boone’s hormone-excised rendition of Tutti Frutti is hilarious in its awfulness.) While fans lost their heads (and perhaps their virginity), younger white musicians tuned into his disregard for traditional boundaries. Paul McCartney cops to copping Little Richard’s falsetto scream and Mick Jagger admits to copying his dynamic use of the entire stage (as well as call-and-response) to rouse the crowd.

Black man in rainbow deep-V top and with curly pompadour against sparkly blue background
Billy Porter in ‘Little Richard: I Am Everything.’ (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Cortés, abetted throughout by a great lineup of interviewees, isn’t satisfied to assert Little Richard’s influence on the first wave of white rock stars, though, nor for that matter Black superstars James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson and Prince. She wants us to see, in the late stages of Little Richard: I Am Everything, every single rocker and pop star into the future as the product of his innovation, even if they have no awareness of him.

That’s the hidden meaning of the title, in my view. (It’s cosmic and spiritual resonances are manifestly clear.) He is the essence and the everything of rock and roll, giving permission to be flamboyant, unbridled, sexual. A fount of freedom, and a beacon of inspiration to be you.

Little Richard’s homosexuality, and his ambivalent and shifting attitudes toward his queerness, give the film its most powerful contemporary relevance. Professors Ashon Crawley and Tavia Nyong’o, and the fabulous Billy Porter, insightfully analyze Richard’s words and deeds and legacy. But they can’t get on board with Richard’s renunciation of his homosexuality (when he gave up music to embrace faith a second time), and how he called it “unnatural.”

There was nothing thoughtless about Little Richard, even if his TV appearances could be sensational and glib. He was a ferocious artist who aspired to be a force for good. If he wrestled at times with reconciling all the pieces of himself, there is some power in that as well.

‘Little Richard: I Am Everything’ screens Tuesday, April 11 at the Roxie in San Francisco. It begins streaming on demand April 21.