One of the paradoxes of the great early rock ‘n’ rollers is that they possessed a cathartic sexuality and bombs-away rockabilly-on-pep-pills energy that was unlike anything we’d ever seen, yet their revolution shook the world so profoundly that within a few years it was hard to imagine what the world was like before them. If you came along (as I did) after that earthquake, their fervor no longer looked shocking; it looked old-fashioned. When I was growing up, everything about Elvis Presley, including his hip-swiveling erotic brashness, seemed impossibly quaint. For the most part, it took years for me to be able to see past the wilder era I was living in and connect with the anarchic spirit of early rock ‘n’ roll.
But Little Richard was always another story. If Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis were wild-ass country boys, teasing their audience with a grin of delinquent effrontery, Little Richard was something even more delirious and eruptive — a total stone freak, and a musical fireball of such insane vibrance that you felt he could light up a city. His voice sounded like a saxophone at full cry. The grit and blare of it was nearly superhuman, and you could make a case that the single most ecstatic sound in the history of rock ‘n’ roll was the high notes he would hit and hold with his micro vibrato. Those ecstatic notes echoed through the singing of Paul McCartney and a thousand others.
It didn’t stop there, of course. Little Richard had an image that was off-the-hook enough to match the iridescence of his sound. The pompadour that stood up as if the electricity coming out of his body had shot right through it, the super-skinny mustache that accessorized his pearly grin (which was like a parody of a grin), the face slathered with pancake makeup, and those androgynous Liz Taylor eyes, popped open in a madman frenzy — he was like the Joker reborn as a diabolical rock ‘n’ roll ringmaster. When Little Richard tore through a song like “Tutti Frutti” or “The Girl Can’t Help It” or “Rip It Up” or “Lucille,” he wasn’t just feeling the heat. He was lit. And he lit up anyone watching.
“Little Richard: I Am Everything,” directed with supreme love and insight by Lisa Cortés, is the enthralling documentary that Little Richard deserves. It’s a movie that understands, from the inside out, what a great and transgressive artist he was, how his starburst brilliance shifted the whole energy of the culture — but also how the astonishing radical nature of what he did, from almost the moment it happened, got shoved under the rug of the official narrative of rock ‘n’ roll. In a sense, you might say: Really? Didn’t Little Richard, in terms of how we think of him, find a place as one of the original heads on the Mount Rushmore of early rock?
Yes and no. He became a star, a legend, a walking myth of formative rock glory. But as “Little Richard: I Am Everything” argues, and quite convincingly, the qualities that Little Richard brought to rock ‘n’ roll — where those qualities came from, and what they meant — have been consistently underappreciated. He was regarded, in a certain way, as an “outrageous” novelty act, a flamboyant eccentric companion piece to Elvis Presley’s debonair dynamo next door. What “I Am Everything” holds up to the light, and invites us to contemplate with a new and clear-eyed understanding, is everything Little Richard invented. Not because he had a grand plan, but because he was a Black queer man who somehow, in the middle of the straitlaced 1950s, made the brave and genius decision that he was going to take everything he was inside and wear it on the outside. He was going to let it all hang out.
“Tutti Frutti,” as “I Am Everything” documents, was first sung by Richard as a song about anal sex. (The original lyrics: “Tutti Frutti, good booty,/If it don’t fit, don’t force it,/You can grease it, make it easy…”). The lyrics, of course, were changed to something more presentable, and you might say that whatever “Tutti Frutti” was about, its most important lyric was “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom!” But to say that is to misunderstand the mystery of how art works. The joyful, insurrectionary, world-wrecking fervor of “Tutti Frutti,” which Cortes channels in a dazzling psychedelic montage, was still about what it had been in Little Richard’s imagination. You could say that he was flaunting his own lust in a straight disguise.
“I Am Everything” celebrates the Little Richard whose megalomaniacal insolence anticipated — and in some ways set the tone for — the volcanic pride of Muhammad Ali. The film opens with Richard on the soundtrack saying, “I’m the emancipator and the architect! I’m the one that started it all!” Does he mean rock ‘n’ roll? We hear Billy Porter declare that Little Richard was Elvis. For it was Richard who lit the flame (even if Elvis, on a mass scale, fanned it into wildfire). But I also think that Little Richard’s I-am-everything exhortation is about something larger than rock ‘n’ roll. His stylized and sexually fluid presence, combined with the primal thrust of rock, kicked open a door that Elvis and Jerry Lee didn’t — the door to everything that happened in the ’70s and beyond, from glam rock to Led Zeppelin to the glitz splendor of Elton John to the erotic insouciance of Prince to the lyrical edge of Lil Nas X. Richard, more powerfully than anyone, was announcing a new way of being.
We see how quickly he was co-opted. Here’s Elvis singing “Tutti Frutti,” and here, on TV in the ’50s, is Pat Boone doing a version of “Tutti Frutti” that’s wholesome enough to play in Sunday school. The system wasn’t just stealing from Little Richard — it was neutering him. And Richard, the showman-artist who had to sit back and watch this happen, turns out to have had his own complicated relationship with everything about himself that was dangerous.
Born Richard Penniman, he grew up in Macon, Georgia, one of 12 children; in the earliest photograph we see of him, he’s already got a grin that looks…ironic. One of his arms and legs were shorter than the others, and he took refuge in playing the piano, and in reveling in the cathartic music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who didn’t just belt the gospel; she played electric guitar like a rock star. (She hired Richard to open for her, which was his first gig.) But Richard’s father, when he figured out that Richard was gay, kicked him out of the house.
Richard played in rhythm and blues bands, sometimes in drag, and was highly influenced by the singer Billy Wright, from whom he took the pompadour, the makeup, the mustache. (Wright, too, was gay.) But the look would have meant little if Richard didn’t invest it with his own happy demons. He was also influenced by Ike Turner, whose piano playing on the 1951 single “Rocket 88,” which many consider to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record, set the template for what Richard did with his right hand — the choppy lightning improv, played over a boogie-woogie bass, that was nothing less than the sound of freedom.
Lisa Cortés weaves together one startling clip after another, so that the revelation of Richard’s majesty on stage, and in the recording studio, hits us like a tornado. But she also tells the story of what an anguished man he was. We see clips of him talking about how he reveled in the rock-star life: the drugs, the orgies, the wretched excesses of fame. But he says he always had a Bible in the other hand. He was steeped in the church, and his guilt — not just about the sins he thought he lived, but the exuberant sin he channeled into his art — overwhelmed him.
So he ricocheted back and forth. By 1957, most of the songs he would become famous for had already been released, and he enrolled in Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, to study theology. He wanted to go straight, in every way. He made a gospel album, on which he sounds like a completely different singer (more Perry Como than Sister Rosetta), and he got married to Ernestine Harvin, a secretary from Washington, D.C.
In a sense, you could say that Richard was masterminding his own conversion therapy. And, of course, it didn’t take. The real Little Richard kept bursting out; rock ‘n’ roll was the siren song that kept calling him. But he didn’t just crave the music, or the adulation. He wanted his due. That meant the royalties he never got (though the fact that he slinked out of his contract in 1957 didn’t help), but it really meant that he wanted to be recognized as the true wild godfather of rock ‘n’ roll. Not just because of his famous ego, but because he saw how essential it was within the saga of America’s racial and sexual politics. With Richard relegated to being a kind of high-camp mascot of rock, it was Black culture itself, and queer culture, that was being denied.
Richard got to know the Beatles before they were famous, spending time with them in Hamburg, and they, who idolized him, did what they could to give back. He continued to tour, going full glitter-glam in 1966 (he had one suit that was basically a mirrored disco ball), and he did the talk-show circuit, where he proved a mesmerizingly funny master of self-presentation as performance art. He singlehandedly popularized the term “Shut up!”
But Little Richard was fighting for something deeper. “I Am Everything,” in addition to eloquent testimonials from Billy Porter, John Waters, Nile Rogers, and others, includes the kind of heady commentary from cultural critics that too many of today’s music documentaries leave out. The queer scholars Zandria Robinson and Jason King provide one rich insight after another, like King’s observation that Richard “was way, way good at liberating other people through his example. He was not good at liberating himself.” A lot of transgressive artists are like that. Yet Little Richard worked hard to crack open perceptions and achieve his rightful place in history, and “I Am Everything” feels like a culmination of that. To watch this jubilant and essential documentary is to realize he had a talent that no one, least of all himself, could contain.