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‘Little Richard: I Am Everything’ Review: Documentary Celebrates Troubled Rock Icon

Sundance Film Festival 2023: Lisa Cortés’ film loves its subject without denying his messy contradictions

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Most documentaries about pioneering musicians are celebrations that exhibit the performer’s greatness right off the bat through electric concert footage and testimonials. Lisa Cortés’ “Little Richard: I Am Everything” does that, of course, with Little Richard ripping it up onstage and on screen, and Mick Jagger, Tom Jones, and John Waters testifying to his power. “He’s everything,” says Mick, in the first of a few nods to the film’s title.

But “Little Richard: I Am Everything” does something else: It gets complicated right off the bat. As part of the opening sequence, we see footage in which latter-day Little Richard tells David Letterman that he came out as gay early in his life, “but God made me know that he made Adam to be with Eve, not Steve.”

That’s the first hint that there’s a thorny side to this rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, a flamboyant showman who came out of Macon, Georgia promising release and freedom as he shouted “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!” He wasn’t the only early rocker to be tortured by thoughts that he was playing the devil’s music, but his status as a gay icon hardly sits comfortably with the way he dismissed that status on and off throughout his life.

So while there’s plenty of celebration in “I Am Everything,” it’s more textured and troubled than that; it’s a doc that loves its subject without denying his messy contradictions.

But what would you expect? As told by friends, fans, family, and by Little Richard himself via a number of different recordings and interviews (including one with Donny and Marie Osmond), the story is an odd one. Richard Penniman grew up in Georgia in the Jim Crow South, where Sundays included a trip to a Baptist church with his mother and then an A.M.E. church with his father. At the same time, he was a gay and effeminate boy with a flair for performing and a love for transformational figures like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel singer who also played a mean electric guitar on anthems like “Strange Things Happening Every Day.”

Tharpe spotted 14-year-old Little Richard and hired him to perform, leading to a teenage career touring through the South in everything from medicine shows to drag acts. The gay singer/blues singer Billy Wright influenced his look and the frenetic R&B showman Esquerita was key in his piano playing; in a show headlined by “Sugar Foot Sam from Alabam,” Little Richard appeared in drag and was billed as Princess Lavonne.

On the circuit and on the street it was no secret that he was gay. In the film, singer Lee Angel says she was 16 when she was told Little Richard wanted to meet her and her response was immediate, “I said, ‘Does he know I’m a girl?’”

He was a blues singer until he was something else entirely. During a break in an unsatisfying 1955 recording session, he went into a local bar, spotted a piano and bashed out a song he’d written called “Tutti Frutti.” The original lyrics were essentially about anal sex, but a local songwriter cleaned them up by making them nonsense and his career was launched at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll.

But as spectacular as the launch was, Little Richard didn’t sustain it, by his own choice. On a flight to Australia in 1957, he hallucinated that the engines were on fire and angels were holding up the plane; during a subsequent show, he saw a fireball in the sky that he interpreted as another message from God. (Apparently, what he’d seen was the launch of Sputnik.) “I’m gonna stop singing,” he announced. “I’m going to the Lord.”

In a way, it didn’t stick. By 1962, he was back playing rock ‘n’ roll on a British tour, nearly causing riots in the process and also teaching a young group called the Beatles a thing or two, taking them to Hamburg, Germany for a crucial stint. (The movie doesn’t mention that it was actually the Beatles third stint in that rough seaside town; they’d already had lengthy engagements there in 1960 and ’61, when Little Richard was an idol but not a pal.)

For a while, he was an utter madman on stage again, and just as wild offstage. “Honestly, there were times when I went to sleep in the bathtub because the rest of the suite was full of naked people,” says one of Little Richard’s musicians in the film.

But religion kept coming back and Little Richard kept turning to gospel music and condemning homosexuality. This is a conflict at the heart of “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” and one alluded to in the title: He was a gay icon who was also homophobic, who inspired gay people and then, to some minds, betrayed them.

“He was very good at liberating other people through his example,” says one friend. “He was not good at liberating himself.”

Career-wise, the movie doesn’t have anywhere to go after a while because Little Richard’s career never really recovered its heat. Even when he had chances, he blew them: He fell asleep at the wheel, wrecked his car, and wound up in the hospital when he should have been going to New York for the first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, a presumably grand moment of recognition for his influence and impact.

That gives the film a different kind of third act. It’s not about a comeback or a late-career resurgence but about cultural appropriation and the abandonment of an iconic star who helped create the music. Again and again we see Little Richard giving speeches in which he rails against the fact that the industry has never given him his due – and when he does “receive his due” it’s with a lifetime achievement award from Dick Clark’s bargain-basement American Music Awards. The movie tries to make that feel as if it’s a triumphant moment, but it’s a muted one at best.

But that fits the story that “Little Richard: I Am Everything” tells. Where Ethan Coen’s recent “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind” took another tortured piano-playing rock ‘n’ roll wildman and delighted in his raucous excess, Cortés’ film is more measured, sadder, and bitter.

You can leave it shouting “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!” but you’ll know that those glorious nonsense syllables came with a price.