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Lisa Cortes’ Documentary “Little Richard: I Am Everything” Reviewed

At the birth of the teenager there were three names:

Elvis Presley

Chuck Berry

Little Richard

Presley invented the teenagers who ran with rock and roll, Berry the lexicon of teen, and Little Richard the way rock and roll was built to sound. It took all three. Presley died early but he was prolific and released 65 albums between 1956 – 1977 -21 years and see ya. Berry has the great 28 and then those early 60s tracks and a big break from greatness till his shocking return with all his powers in tact just before his death in 2017, on the sublime Chuck.

As for Little Richard: he was known as the architect because of those string of songs from the fifties. Little Richard wasn’t a particularly great album artist but the one undeniable album Here’s Little Richard, includes four of the greatest early rockers ever, so influential that everyone from James Brown to Paul McCartney owe him a huge debt.

Director Lisa Cortes’ Little Richard documentary “I Am Everything”, finds the director of “All In: The Fight for Democracy” trying to place Little Richard into a queer context. Clearly, Richard Penniman was the definition of omnisexual, he was attracted to men and to everybody else, and he started his career as a drag queen while navigating a world full of danger that could easily end with his being lynching. Smart as hell, he saw the entire world, and most white teen America, rip him off, Pat Boone singing “Long Tall Sally” is absolutely hysterical though Presley’s version added little and it was Boone who whitewashed all the blackness and queerness out of it so the Pat Boone take is at least different.

Cortes tells the story of Little Richard, who didn’t just rip it up but was ripped off, less a sexually confused man and more a man willing to deal with his heartfelt Christianity even though he didn’t sing Gospel the way he sang secular rock. Though he could sing anything with his high and raspy falsetto and struck a match black brilliance.

While we rock fans might find it bizarre that Richard considered himself extremely underappreciated and his grave might well include the words “I was never given my due”. For us he was simply a giant, exuding all the excitement and joy of youth and sex. But for the world he was considered somewhat of a novelty act, that’s how it got away with being a cross-dresser, though its misunderstanding of his essence now feels infuriating.

Cortes misses none of his rocker status and yet it fails to complete the picture entirely, surely his comment that he had never known love was his rosebud? His embrace of Jesus (which certainly might have had a sexual component) was a replacement for true love. If that misses a little, her documentation of Richards being beaten by his father for wearing makeup, something vastly more disturbing than anything Little Richard ever did.

Because… queerness is no big deal. In 2023 every deviation is considered a perversion. Thomas Mann, who wrote “Death In Venice” and was a German anti-Nazi who had to leave the country, wrote in his diary about his sexual attraction for his prepubescent son: now that is a perversion, wanting to suck a man’s dick before sticking in a woman’s vagina is closer to common sense than even aberration.

Cortes does a good job of telling us Penniman’s life, of the tumult, confusion, anger about being ripped off and never given his due yet it still feels as though we are missing the heart of it. If you listen to his 1971 King Of Rock And Roll he can still play it and he can still sing it though did we really need his take on “Brown Sugar”? still, it lights his genius, not the uber-aggressive “Shut Up”, not the grammatical but the unsurpassed vocal range. The “wooh”.

The documentary slowly devolves to the Georgia Peach on talk shows whining. Is that what we are meant to take away from Little Richard’s life and art? The answer is Little Richard was queer but queerness was only a part of his rock and roll story, when you are so great that at the age of fourteen Mahalia Jackson hears you singing and invites you to sick with her, the rest is just inevitable.

Grade: B+

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