Lisa Cortés interrogates the complexities of rock 'n' roll's subversive king
As part of Black History Month, we are focusing on several films from Black filmmakers that premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival
Normative society will tell you that a white boy from Mississippi conjured up rock ’n’ roll all on his lonesome. Normative society is lying to you. Ask Billy Porter who the archetype for the rock star is and he’ll say “it wasn’t Elvis, y’all.” He’ll tell you it was Little Richard. Billy Porter will not lie to you. This idea of lineage is one of the themes in Lisa Cortés' documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything. The film, in part, seeks to establish Richard as the progenitor of the stars that not only came after, but also enjoyed more success, acclaim, and recognition. This helps to establish another major theme in the film, that of the act of appropriation. How appropriation is a step in the intentional process of obliteration.
The intention of the film isn’t necessarily to go “beyond” the myth, to show the “real” Little Richard, but rather to explore the layers of that myth. He was a Black man, a queer man, a man of faith. Add rock star to these complexities and what emerges is a man at constant odds with himself. Born Richard Wayne Penniman in 1932 in Macon, Georgia, one of twelve raised in a religious household—the internal tension was always present.
Cortés directs the documentary with a blend of admiration, intellectual curiosity, and deep love. It’s a film that seeks to understand just how much of a subversive artist Richard was, and how he achieved such heights of popularity—considering the specific and destructive historical context. This is more than just a history and biography. I Am Everything examines the cultural context in which Little Richard was formed—and how amazing and unlikely that formation was. It also seeks to reinforce Richard’s position as the King of rock ’n’ roll. The documentary employs Black, queer scholars to examine Richard and the surrounding context, adding texture and gravitas to go along with the standard talking heads.
A false memory tells me the first time I heard “Tutti Frutti” was while watching Good Morning Vietnam but the can’t be right. It’s nowhere on the soundtrack, and despite the vibe of the song seeming to fit on that soundtrack, the songs played were from ten years later. I know for sure that I did not understand the context of the song—its references to anal sex—the first time I heard it, and I’m not sure when I discovered the original lyrics and intention—something that the documentary lays bare:
Tutti Frutti, good booty
Tutti Frutti, good booty If it don't fit, don't force it You can grease it, make it easy
The idea of queerness and rock n roll being intertwined in any one culture, and what happens when those two things are taken away is prevalent in the film. Elvis and Pat Boone both covered “Tutti Frutti.” Elvis oozed a kind of sex appeal that was at least acceptable (if unacknowledged as such) to hegemonic institutions. However much it may have irked parents to see their daughters shriek with delight at Elvis’ swerving hips, to see them doing the same directed at a Black man who was (known or unknown) also queer…well, it doesn’t take much to imagine the rage boiling up in white parents (even if they were also tapping their foot along with song). Pat Boone further sanitized Little Richard’s music, making it safe, chaste, utter white bread. This kind of appropriation seeks not just to remove the context of the song, but seeks to erase, seeks to destroy the very origin. In this respect, at least, Elvis is king (read: Big Mama Thornton).
I do remember, at nine years old, hearing Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” playing in the movie Predator. Thinking about that now, it’s hard not to assign a bit of irony to these beefy man-warriors playing Little Richard on their way to do battle, getting pumped up to “kick some ass.” But Richard himself was full of irony and complication.
By 1957 most of the songs he would become famous for had been released. An incident on a flight to Australia had him seeing angels. He decided to go straight—both in profession and sexual orientation. He enrolled in Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama and studied theology. He made gospel music, and even married a woman named Ernestine Harvin. After inventing himself as Little Richard—a firebrand, full of bombast, and pride—he initiated his own conversion therapy. In a clip from an appearance on Letterman, Richard makes reference to the tired trope of “Adam and Eve; not Adam and Steve.” It’s as if he fell into a trap of trying to "pray away the gay."
There is a harm done to an entire community when someone with the status of Little Richard renounces himself. But it didn’t take, and the real Little Richard once again took center stage in all his glitter-glamness. He couldn’t stay away from the fame, the adulation, but more importantly—what he wanted most of all—the recognition, his due as the godfather, wild child, king of rock ‘n’ roll. “More of us should declare who we are,” he said.
This wasn’t just about ego. Richard understood the power he had as a liberator, “I’m the emancipator and the architect! I’m the one that started it all!” he said at the beginning of the documentary. Take this statement as you will. But Richard understood what his legacy and legend meant to race and sexual politics in American society. If Little Richard is relegated to only a figure of high camp, if he’s only viewed as putting on an act, it’s not just him that suffers. Black culture, queer culture, they suffer, too.
I Am Everything shows us Little Richard’s fight, work, and shortcomings. The scholar Jason King observed that Richard “was way, way good at liberating other people through his example. He was not good at liberating himself.” He fought to crack open a perception, to make space for others. He set the path for the glitter and glam that came after, for artists like James Brown; gender bending artists like Prince, Bowie, Mick Jagger, and more contemporary artists like Lil Nas X. Little Richard crafted a legacy that can never be appropriated.
Brock Kingsley is a writer, artist, critic, and educator living in Fort Worth, Texas. His work has appeared in publications such as Brooklyn Rail, Paste Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. He is a regular contributor at the Chicago Review of Books.