Music journalists – and I’m allowed to say this because I used to be a music journalist – can often be some of the silliest people on planet earth. You can tell they are silly because they are forever describing pop musicians as ‘important’, when it’s patently obvious that very, very few pop musicians, ever, have been genuinely important. Marvin Gaye, Bowie, The Beatles, Prince, Madonna? Fine. But there aren’t many others.
The late Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard, was and is unique amongst pop musicians in many ways: not the least of which is that to call him important is a huge understatement. None of the above artists – or thousands of others – would exist without him.
It thus seems unfathomable that there has not been a serious documentary centred around this black, queer icon and the wild, sexually explicit three minute pop hurricanes – Tutti Frutti, Rip It Up, Lucille to name but three – that still sound as outrageous today as they must have done in the Fifties. But maybe 2023, where race, gender and identity are now so central to the cultural conversation, is the perfect time. Maybe the world just needed 70 years or so to catch up.
With I Am Everything, director Lisa Cortés has done an appropriately fabulous job. There is an abundance of archive footage (he is brilliant on talk shows, as he is onstage) as well as interviews with all kinds of people: from ethnomusicologists who contextualise his impact, to the stars who so admired him, to friends, family and lovers. Together, it makes for a complicated, at times difficult, story of an incredibly complex character.
“We want our icons to be monolithic,” she says. ‘So with Little Richard, we want him to be Tutti Frutti and [his later, incredibly camp catchphrase] ‘Shut up!’ But in making this film, it has been so revelatory to see the journey of this young queer man from Macon, Georgia, born in 1932, who just has the incredible boldness and audacity to claim himself as a black man in spaces that were meant to negate him. To proclaim himself as a king. It’s hard to fathom the bravery, to step out there as he did: to be so suggestive and groundbreaking and revolutionary.”
The bravery, too, does not stop there. Having invented rock’n’roll, Richard watches as, almost immediately, his work is watered down (the original lyrics of Tutti Frutti, about anal sex, are changed from “If it don’t fit, don’t force it/you can grease it, make it easy”) and appropriated by white artists (the comically straight Pat Boone) who go on to make a hell of a lot more money than he ever would.
Then, just as he is starting to get a modicum of the credit he deserves, he renounces it all – the music, his sexuality – in the name of religion. “He contained multitudes,” Cortés says. “It becomes apparent that there is this pendulum, swinging to extremes. The sinner, rock’n’roll lifestyle and then swinging back to being this deeply spiritual person. Nothing happens at level five with Richard. I always feel it’s like level 13 or level 15.”
One person who knew Richard better than most is Dublin-born writer and DJ Charles White, now 81, who wrote the The Life and Times of Little Richard, published in 1984: a book that features in the film and details antics – orgies, drugs – that are, frankly, unprintable. (“It popped the curlers right off my head,” runs a quote from Bette Midler on its back cover. “So hot that I had to read it with gloves on.”)
“Richard just shot these stories out like a machine gun!” says White (who also appears in the separate, just-released BBC documentary Little Richard: The King & Queen of Rock n Roll). “He was always a man of great energy and vitality. I just loved him. And he was so impactful. People were just in awe of him. The Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones… everybody.”
Certainly, the Jaggers and the Bowies and the Princes have always been open as to just how much their respective schticks were informed by Richard. Jagger gushes in I Am Everything about the time that the Rolling Stones toured with him, and he would just watch every night, learning how to use the entirety of the stage, how to get people up on their feet, how to transmit energy.
And there’s a heartwarming moment at the end of the film when, in 1993, Little Richard receives a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys: with all his (now filthy rich and famous) students paying tribute to him. But is that enough for someone of such seismic influence? Should there not now be new generations discovering his music? Will he finally, two years after his passing, get the recognition that he so obviously deserves?
“Well, I hope that we have laid the breadcrumbs,” Cortés says. “But that’s a whole other film. This film is not about the elevation of Elvis or whoever. This is about the erasure of Little Richard, and correcting that.” Could she see a time when, like Elvis, there is a major biopic about the man she has so brilliantly documented? “Oh, I hope that there will be. And I would love to be a part of it. I mean hey: you never know who’s going to be reading this, right?”
Little Richard: I Am Everything is in cinemas from April 28