It is testament to Little Richard’s mark on the foundation of rock ’n’ roll that the rollcall of contributors for this documentary is so fittingly illustrious. Mick Jagger, Nile Rogers, Billy Porter and John Waters all line up to acclaim his seismic impact on music in the 20th century.
Richard’s tale is a familiar one to a point. One of 12 children, he was born in ’32 in Macon, Georgia, growing up on a musical diet of gospel and blues and getting his first break with Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Richards was gender non-conforming before that title had an existence. He ran away on the performance circuit with vaudeville road shows like Sugar Foot Sam from Alabama before finding his own voice with daring tracks like Tutti Frutti (1956), Lucille (1957) Good Golly Miss Molly (1958).
As Waters says, “the first songs that you love and your parents hate is the beginning of the soundtrack of your life.” Richards had tapped into youth culture and its freedoms in a way in which it hadn’t registered in music before. He brought sex and joy with an electrifying jive, fervent shrieks, and flamboyant garb. The Stones opened for him in ’63, The Beatles opened for him also and went on to ape the frenzy which surrounded his stage show whilst Bowie, Prince and Elton John took a sequin from his style book.
Of course, Richards lived and worked through an era of segregation, was conflicted about his sexuality and ended up finding both Jesus and drugs at different times in his life. He later renounced his queerness as a reluctant revolutionary.
Lisa Cortes, who produced Lee Daniels’ Precious, is at the helm here bringing a remarkable story of a complicated man to our attention through archival footage, testimonials and scholarly insights. It packs a lot in and may even have benefitted from being episodic given how little attention he has really garnered versus what he merits. It is testament to the impact of Covid that I found out Richards had only died on May 9 2020 at the ripe age of 87.
Words: Michael McDermott
Little Richard: I Am Everything
Director: Lisa Cortes
Release Date: April 28