The year 2020 was rife with contradiction. While the pandemic forced us to socially distance from one another, commiseration brought us closer together. We were shuttered indoors for safety until racial unrest brought us out into the streets again. And in the midst of it all, the world lost a legend when Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard, died at age 87 in May 2020. Despite his many contributions to culture as we know it — he helped birth rock and roll, after all — the musical pioneer had never truly been given his flowers. It was this realization that sparked a flame for Little Richard: I Am Everything director Lisa Cortés.
"Whenever someone passes away, you hear their music all over. May 2020 is not that long ago, but we were living very differently. They were challenging times," she recalls. "I heard this music that was so infectious, and then I started reading tributes from Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters, and Bob Dylan, and Elton John. And I'm like, wait a minute. Has there ever been a doc about Little Richard?"
Little Richard burst onto the scene like a supernova. In a time when segregation was the rule, his music brought people of all colors together. Other artists — Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Prince, the list goes on and on — would build careers on just a handful of his stardust. He was a man of contradiction. An openly queer man who routinely repented for his lifestyle. A rock icon who wasn't afraid to tell the world exactly what he deserved, while receiving a minuscule amount of what he'd earned. With Cortés at the helm, I Am Everything pulls together archival interviews, photos and performances to paint a picture of the man behind the music in a life's story that's, well, very rock and roll.
"His story lent itself to not only this examination of history, but also of great social change that he's a part of," says the director. "I like these characters who have this ripple effect that we still feel today, who are in conversation with contemporary themes that we have relegated to the past."
A.frame: Little Richard: I Am Everything marks your first solo feature debut. [Cortés co-directed 2020's All In: The Fight for Democracy with Liz Garbu.] What made you want to take the reigns this time?
Yes! I got my wings and my sparkles at the same time. I knew it was a story that I cared about deeply and that I had the ability to tell.
You've said before that Little Richard was not always the most reliable person to tell his own story. What challenges did you face when pulling this documentary together?
I actually loved that he wasn't so reliable, because then I could have the people that I interviewed be in conversation with him. Little Richard says, "I need to wear makeup to protect myself in the South." And then [critic] Tavia Nyong'o goes, "That doesn't really make sense. That's counterintuitive." I love that there were opportunities like that in the film.
I think the challenge is always you're backing into time. This was conceived as a feature doc, and it was not a multi-part series. So, there are stories and tangents I might have wanted to explore, but if anything, that actually helped me to stay very rigorous with the framing, which is: Give Little Richard the microphone to tell his story. Do the archival dive, to make certain that we can find him as a narrator taking us through his origin to pivotal moments and even to a recording from very close to the end of his life.
You mentioned the makeup. I wasn't aware that, early in his career, he performed in drag shows. Can you speak to that juxtaposition of how that went down in the '40s versus what the drag community is facing today?
What I think is interesting is drag performance was not just happening in the '40s. There's a long tradition. There are stories in D.C. in the 1800s of not only drag performances, but drag balls! So, the drag persona becoming so politicized now is a negation of important subculture that makes up America.
The film explores the full definition of being queer and how Little Richard personified that. How do you think Little Richard continues to be a beacon for the LGBTQ+ community, the disabled community, and so on?
Well, he was transgressive, so it's not just the music. It is shifting cultural norms. It's provoking intersectional conversations by his very being. I was so surprised when Billy Porter, unprompted in the film, says, "I, as a Black man, as a Black queer man, can be who I am because of him." I thought that spoke profoundly to his impact and how his very presence affected major queer artists.
This film speaks a lot about how conflicted Little Richard was, whether because of his sexuality or his religious upbringing. Do you think those contradictions are what makes the music so good? So many of these conflicted artists — we could talk about Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye — have become legends.
I do think that's that push-pull of the emotionality in the music, because this individual is navigating for themself what they see as two extremes — the sacred and the profane. I think it is, psychologically, the turmoil of coexisting in these spaces, but not being at peace. That is a part of the churn that you can feel in rock and roll, especially. And certainly Marvin Gaye, like you said, is a great example, and he's not a rock and roll artist. But as a soul artist — which really is what all these artists are, [because] they're singing from the soul — is really definitive in amplifying their voice and their approach to the music.
One thing about this film that is a little different from other rock docs is the use of fresh music performances by contemporary artists. You have a history in the music industry. Did that influence you in any way?
I think my background in the music industry is just a part of my great love of music. But the dreamscape performances with Valerie June, Cory Henry, and Pastor John P. Kee came from a desire to do a couple of things: To decolonize the music doc, as I like to say, and decolonizing for me is playing with what is the perceived constructs of what it should be and who tells the story. So, I was very intentional in the scholars who are contributing to the film, and the music performances themselves are a part of finding a way for this experience to be more immersive, with these contemporary artists who are a part of [Little Richard's] legacy.
Valerie June is a great Americana artist who is a big fan of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She is also a Black woman playing guitar and rocking out. Cory Henry started in the church as this brilliant 3-year-old playing the organ, but he also is equally familiar with all genres inclusive of jazz, hip-hop, R&B. These artists, in their own right, are part of this extended family tree from Little Richard, and their performances are to inhabit seminal moments in Richard's life. I always say a portal opened up, and through these moments — whether it's the creation of "Tutti Frutti" or meeting Sister Rosetta — they propel him on his journey. They allow him to take exponential leaps of possibility.
Let’s talk about the infamous Pat Boone version of "Tutti Frutti." In the film, Zandria Robinson explains that it's not just appropriation, it's "obliteration." It is erasure for Black artists. Do you think the same could be said about the film industry?
When we look at the long tail of history, it's been on its own rollercoaster in valuing Black cultural product. We have certain moments that I always think of: We have our Blacksploitation, we have all these films out, and then we go into a void. Then we're back up with that great moment with Boyz in the Hood and Spike's films. So, I do think that it is an industry that there has been inconsistencies in amplifying Black voices and stories.
What is the most important message you want viewers to take from I Am Everything?
People are going to come to this film from many perspectives, and it's not my role to dictate what they take from it. What I hope people get is a greater understanding of somebody who is more than a one-note "shut up" caricature. Someone who's not monolithic, whose contributions are so profound, and whose role as a mentor to incredible artists and to an art form has not been explored before.
By Doriean Stevenson