Lisa Cortes, director of Little Richard: I Am Everything

(Image: CNN Films, IMDb)

Little Richard: I Am Everything is a documentary that you must see. Not just if you’re a music lover, but if you want to see the true origins of rock & roll, on-stage showmanship, and the precedent established that has allowed so many male performers, from Prince to Harry Styles, show off their flamboyant, more feminine sides.

I was able to watch the documentary a few weeks ago in preparation to speak to the director, Lisa Cortés, and I was floored by what I didn’t know about Little Richard. I thought I was educated on his life, but there were so many facets to the man that I grew up watching on TV that I wasn’t aware of. After viewing the film, I have a bigger, deeper appreciation for his life and his career, and I think all viewers will come away feeling like that as well.

I asked Cortés this week via Zoom what sparked her to create this documentary.

“You know, I mean, it’s, it’s interesting because it was the spring of 2020, we’re all in lockdown. There’s a pandemic raging, there’s a lot of sadness. And Little Richard passed away that spring,” she said. “Whenever someone [in the music industry] transitions, they play their music all the time. So I’m hearing this wonderful, joyous music. It sparked my own personal memories of hearing this as a kid and dancing around with my cousins. And then I saw all these interesting people from Elton John, Bob Dylan, giving tributes to Little Richard. And then I was like, ‘Oh, I wanna go check out a documentary on him.’ There was no doc. And so that became a part of this great journey to tell his story and. I, like you learned so much during the course of making this film.”

While we all know Little Richard’s trademark flamboyant and extravagant style, we might take for granted his own personal struggles with his sexuality and identity. Even though he presented himself as confident on stage, he struggled with his own demons regarding self-acceptance. While I saw it as a battle with mental health, particularly during a certain portion of the film in which he believes the world is ending around him, convincing him to give up his secular lifestyle, renounce his sexuality, go to bible college, and even get married. He eventually finds his way back to rock & roll, but his tug-of-war between religion and his identity remains throughout the course of his life. Cortés said that it was much broader than just mental health.

“…[F]or me it’s more the cultural health,” she said, referencing his background as a child who grew up in a strict church. “You know, to come from a place to come from a religiosity that you feel does not allow you to love your queer self and love your God in equal measures.”

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“The thing about this film, Is Richard’s telling the story,” she continued. “[I]t was so important to give him agency, to…do the self narration. When we started the film, we did a deep dive into finding all that beautiful archival [footage] because I wanted to make certain that we could find his voice from cradle to grave telling and narrating this rollercoaster ride that he was on. And so you know him thinking that the world’s coming to an end, going to Bible college and then leaving and going back to rock & roll, and then later going back to the church actively to sell Bibles is all through Richard’s eyes and voice. That became kind of the guiding principle to take us on this journey, on this, this kind of pendulum, uh, that he’s on, inhabiting…the ‘sinner’ lifestyle and the secular lifestyle.”

Little Richard’s influence in music and American history is palpable–so much of popular music is still based on his charisma, musical stylings, and even fashion. But now, as we’ve seen, people are intent on refusing to acknowledge the contributions of Black people and queer people to society. On one side, we’ve seen critical race theory be bandied about as a boogeyman, leading conservative leaders to fight against teaching even the basics of Black history. On the other side, those same conservatives are trying to police queer life by passing or attempting to pass ordinances on drag performers and trans women. Little Richard’s life lies at the crux of both of these fights.

“The first part is, you know, we’re living in a challenging time where we saw in Florida this movement to push back on the teaching of African American history, and then the criminalization of drag performers in Tennessee and other places. So this film is very much in conversation with things that are happening in the zeitgeist right now,” said Cortés. “And what I hope that people see is number one [are]…the tremendous contributions of Little Richard.”

“It’s not just about the music. It’s not just about the fabulous fashions. It’s also setting forth as a transgressive figure,” she continued. “This kind of catalytic change to introduce this idea of gender fluidity. You know, he is out there kind of presenting his femme persona, and I say that if you don’t have little Richard, you don’t have Prince, you don’t have Little Nas X and you don’t have Harry Styles. He is giving permission to others, even though, as Jason King [Chair of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music] in the film says, he might not be able to give that permission to himself. But we see the cultural change that he is a part of progressing and moving forward. And, you know, I think, I would hope that people would, uh, see a story that they think they know about a person, and realize that he contains so many multitudes. He is so much more than a man on a talk show saying, ‘Shut up.'”

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Without Little Richard, there wouldn't be performers like Prince or Little Nas X. (CNN Films/Magnolia Pictures)
Without Little Richard, there wouldn’t be performers like Prince or Little Nas X. (CNN Films/Magnolia Pictures)

Little Richard might be the true king of rock & roll, but he also stands on the shoulders of other greats who came before him, other pioneers of the genre like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whom he traveled with and learned from, and Esquerita, a femme rock & roll performer and friend to Little Richard whom Little Richard based his own look and style on.

“You know, in looking at, at Little Richard’s [musical] DNA, you can’t help but go back and see who influenced him so strongly, whether it’s meeting Sister Rosetta Tharpe when he’s 14, or as an older person, Esquerita, Billy Wright, and reentering a conversation about rock & roll that is encompassing and acknowledging the contributions of Black folks, of African Americans to this incredible genre.”

“I’m interested in this idea of why do we have to elevate Elvis and erase Little Richard,” she continued. “Both make their contributions, but as we see Richard is even predating Elvis and Richard is a part of that wellspring that Elvis drew from. Typical rock & roll docs do not feature Black protagonists. And, you know, I think that’s a part of the change that happens with this film also.”

So far, as the film has premiered and screened at film festivals, Cortés said she has received love and support.

“There’s been such love and engagement with audiences. I’ve been at film festivals like over the weekend. I was in like Chicago, Provincetown. I’ve been to Bend, Oregon, Sarasota [Florida]. Um, you know, the film is screened in London, Copenhagen, and I love the intergenerational conversations with younger and older people saying, ‘I didn’t know all this about him. I never thought about this history in this way,'” she said.

“I am enjoying the appreciation that I feel is being created for him and his artistry. I appreciate that I took some chances with this–to do dreamscapes with contemporary artists performing his music and playing with visual effects,” she continued. “And people have really leaned in, have really expressed how much they’ve loved that this film is very much in the spirit of Little Richard–it’s bold and it’s uncompromising.”

Little Richard: I Am Everything is in theaters and on digital now.

The Book of Awesome Black Americans

You can learn more about Sister Rosetta Tharpe and other music greats in my book, The Book of Awesome Black Americans, available now by clicking here.

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By Monique