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‘Little Richard: I Am Everything’ Highlights The Queer, Black Roots Of Rock & Roll

Little Richard in a costume featuring puffy sleeves, a strap up his chest, and appearing mostly shirtless. He gives peace signs with both hands from the field of a massive stadium.
Rock 'n' roll legend Little Richard in costume at an empty Wembley Stadium, during rehearsals for a concert on Aug. 3, 1972.
(Tim Graham
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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The voice behind early rock-and-roll hits like “Tutti Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” Little Richard played a pivotal role in the formation of the genre during the 1950s. He became a pop culture mainstay through the last half of the 20th century, but it was often more as a comic character known for turning “shut up” into a catchphrase than for giving us rock music.

“What got lost in our experience of Richard was the depth of his innovation,” said Lisa Cortés, who directed the new documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything.

The film allows Richard to tell his own story via a deep dive through archival video, covering his music, his sex life, the discrimination he faced, and more. But it focuses on his influence — not just how he grew out of Macon, Georgia and revolutionized the music world with his electrifying style and hit songs, but that he did it while being Black and queer at a time when it was even more difficult to be either.

“He is creating from a place of lack on so many levels — lack because of color, lack because of his queerness — but he almost takes that and makes that his superpower, at a time when that superpower also got people killed,” Cortés said.

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Little Richard adjust his hair in a mirror. He holds a brush and wears an untucked white button-up shirt, along with a tie. Other suits are seen on a clothing rack in the mirror's reflection.
Little Richard at Los Angeles's Wrigley Field on Sept. 2, 1956.
(Pictorial Press Ltd./Alamy Stock Photo
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

On the heels of his early success with “Tutti Frutti” (popularized after having the gay sex-centric lyrics rewritten to something more palatable for audiences of the time), Little Richard moved to Los Angeles and had a house in Lafayette Square that he shared with his mother. He also moved more of his family from Georgia to a home he bought out here in Riverside.

L.A. was liberating for Richard, according to Cortés. It allowed him to extend his connection with a larger LGBTQ+ community. It’s also where he met one of the closest friends of his life and someone who contributed to his own continued evolution, Sir Lady Java. Cortés described her as “an incredible LGBTQ activist, who even then was dressing as a woman.”

For Little Richard, L.A. was “a playground for community and self-expression,” Cortés said. Early in his career, Richard had sometimes dressed in drag, taking on the persona of “Princess Lavonne” — he continued to evolve his flamboyant style after moving here. His experimentation might lead today’s audiences to describe him as gender fluid, though that was not how he identified then.

Richard starred in rock films here, which helped spread his stardom even further in both the U.S. and internationally.

In later decades, he lived at what became the Andaz West Hollywood — the famed “Riot House”/”Riot Hyatt” on Sunset Boulevard (which you may remember from a prominent appearance in the movie Almost Famous). He brought friends to live with him there and would hold court in the downstairs lobby — his onetime suite has since been named after him.

Loving God and rock-and-roll

Little Richard bathed in a white light on a dark stage, hands spread and raised with a microphone in his left hand, as he looks up toward the heavens.
Little Richard performs at the Olympia Concert Halll, June 7, 2005 in Paris.
(Stephane de Sakutin
AFP via Getty Images)
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Richard’s relationship with rock — and with the LGBTQ+ community — was complicated.

“I knew this film couldn’t be about hagiography,” Cortés said. “It would be very easy to say, 'He’s the first to do this, he’s the first to do that — isn’t he great, ‘cause he did blah blah?’ But there needed to be an interrogation of his life.”

Cortés intentionally chose Black queer scholars to critically examine the most complicated parts of his life.

“I wanted to center voices who had a connection to Richard’s journey and also were not the usual suspects that you see in music docs,” Cortés said. “They are questioning things that he says, that we as an audience are going, ‘That doesn’t make sense.’”

Richard experienced a push and pull throughout his life between rock music and his queer identity on one side, and his deep connection with his conservative religious faith and how he understood it on the other. The conflict appears generational — his father was a minister who owned a small nightclub and sold bootleg liquor on the side.

Little Richard’s queer lifestyle led to his father rejecting him and throwing him out of the house. But later, when Richard’s music started to become a success, his dad began playing it at his club — around the clock. For the first time, his father expressed pride in Richard and welcomed him back home.

A Black man with a thin mustache and short-cut hair holds up his hands, sitting in a plain room that looks like it may have some spiritual connotations.
Little Richard looking cheerful at the start of a concert tour of the U.K., Oct. 6, 1962.
(Evening Standard
Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Still, Richard’s own faith led him to quit his rock music career multiple times. The first time came after having a vision of angels holding up a plane he was in while flying to Australia, then seeing a fire in the sky above a stadium he was playing in (which turned out to be Russian satellite Sputnik).

Little Richard declared the world was ending, threw his rings into the ocean and cut his hair as he left behind his rock lifestyle and attended Oakwood College, a Bible school.

“He’s a divided soul, and he lives this out for the public to see,” Cortés said.

There’s a line from Richard, delivered in one of Cortés’s favorite parts of the movie, that underscored for her how difficult it was for Richard to embrace and accept all aspects of himself:

“I love that line where he says, ‘Yeah, sometimes, there was an orgy, and I had my Bible,” Cortés said.

While at Bible school, Richard met a woman named Ernestine Harvin and got married at his L.A. home in 1957. They divorced in 1964 but remained friends into his later life.

Cortés uses all of this internal turmoil to create a dynamic story, following Richard’s life and times as he tries to reconcile who he is and how he wants the world to recognize his incredible talent.

Recognition deferred

Little Richard, a Black man, stands on the left wearing a shiny suit and holding a golden trophy that looks like an upside-down hat, or a champagne bucket. He smiles and wears sunglasses. He stands alongside two other smiling Black musicians holding trophies.
Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley were each honored with the "Icon Award" at The 50th Annual BMI Pop Awards at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills on Tuesday, May 14, 2002.
(Kevin Winter
Getty Images)

Little Richard has often been ignored in favor of white performers, who would sell more records playing his songs than he did. He received less recognition than many artists who used the pathways he’d blazed into the industry. He carried the pain of that lack of acknowledgment throughout his life, expressing how it bothered him both at the time and decades later.

One of the times he did get credit on a large scale was when he was named to the first class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, though being relegated to the past while still performing added to the complexities of that moment. It was both a recognition and one of the biggest setbacks of his later career — he fell asleep at the wheel in Hollywood and crashed, significantly injuring himself and leaving him unable to appear and accept his inauguration.

When he presented a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1988, Richard let loose his frustrations in a speech that moved between comedy and intense anger.

But his influence on rock and the music industry was immense, as the film makes clear. The list of rock stars he inspired even in his early days includes the likes of Mick Jagger and Tom Jones, both of whom talk about that influence in I Am Everything.

Richard was ultimately able to accept a special career achievement award at the 1997 American Music Awards, a moment the film uses to give him at least a hint of closure.

Opening a portal

Little Richard dances on stage in a suit, energetic, with an all-Black band behind him playing guitar, bass, saxophone, drums, and piano.
Little Richard at Wrigley Field, Los Angeles, Sept. 2, 1956.
(Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Cortés credits Little Richard with creating space for the LGBTQ+ people who followed him. She described him as “a transgressive figure who has helped to move culture forward, allowing for greater gender fluidity and expressiveness.”

“A portal opens for him, and I believe he opens space through his very being, for us to get to a place now of people being able to openly accept who they are,” Cortés said. “The residue of his contributions can be seen in many places, when you know how to look for them.”

Other artists who crossed through that portal range from David Bowie and Prince to Bruno Mars and Harry Styles, the film notes.

Little Richard in a shirt resembling the American flag holds up his hands as he plays on stage with three other men backing him up.
Little Richard and Chuck Berry on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" at NBC Studios in Los Angeles on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2002.
(Kevin Winter
Getty Images)

Actor Billy Porter, another of the voices featured in the film, says it’s because of Little Richard that Porter has been able to do what he wants.

“Sometimes simply existing is a revolutionary act,” Porter says in I Am Everything.

Cortés argues that Richard, because of the politics of the moment, is now more relevant than ever.

“Our history is important, and it frees us all. And as soon as we put our arms around everybody who’s made a contribution not just to music, but to opening the runway for everyone, I think then we can start to make real progress,” Cortés said.

Little Richard died in May 2020, shortly into the COVID-19 pandemic, after suffering from cancer. He left a complicated legacy — Richard remained conflicted throughout his life, making both pro- and anti-gay statements into the 2000s. But the film makes a compelling argument for giving Little Richard the credit he always craved.

Little Richard: I Am Everything is in limited release now. It was co-produced by HBO Max, so it’s likely to appear on the Max streaming service following its theatrical run.

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