Little Richard: I Am Everything 2023 Movie Review
January 27, 2023

Little Richard: I Am Everything 2023 Movie Review

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Little Richard: I Am Everything 2023 Movie Review

Lisa Cortés’ effervescent yet incomplete documentary “Little Richard: I Am Everything” makes clear the complications within the life of Little Richard. Here was a queer Black man from Macon, Georgia who was a proudly flamboyant and irresistibly charming ball of energy that combusted into rock and roll. The cultural touchstones of the man born Richard Wayne Penniman are so resonant we know “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” and more not as songs, but as the lexicon of ourselves. And yet, how could a man who dressed with wild openness — his glittering jumpsuit, a swooshing hairstyle, caked on makeup — appear so lost within himself?

In “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” Cortés aims to answer that question. Unlike her previous film, the Stacey Abrams-centered “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (co-directed by Liz Garbus), her swing at Richard’s life and career never manages to separate the man himself from his own mythmaking.

Cortés admittedly takes on a difficult task. Apart from Robert Townsend’s made-for-TV movie “Little Richard,” where Leon played the singer (a classic in my mind), the landmark performer has never been given his cinematic due. In the opening minutes of “I Am Everything,” it’s a challenge she successfully meets: The film’s breakneck pace and kinetic use of Richard’s concert footage shoots us from a cannon. We zoom through the singer’s early life — such as his difficult relationship with his father — toward the openly gay Black artists Billy Wright and Esquerita, and the gospel singers, such as the Ward Singers and Marion Williams, who rooted the ebullient artist in his style.

Through talking heads like the touching Billy Porter and the cheeky John Waters, we’re further integrated into Richard’s importance as a gay Black man on a national stage. Hilariously, Cortés also sets an archival interview with Richard, where he recalls how an overtly gay song like “Tutti Frutti” was sanitized into a big chart hit, against a montage of stock nature videos that clip together into a big bang.

The director’s other visual flairs add further intoxicatingly kitsch flavors to the music, such as refracted compositions, flurries of stardust enveloping the screen, gauzy ethereal filters, and lovably corny staged performances of Richard’s memorable songs by artists like Cory Henry and Valerie June. The film wholly captures the charged, camp spirit of the trailblazing singer.

Courts also balances Richard’s now-recognized musical importance against an erasure of his legacy perpetrated for decades by white folk, which ultimately influenced Richard’s understandable resentment.

The film is less effective, however, in interrogating the contradicting relationship the artist held with his sexuality. His flights from rock and roll toward the staid settings of the church, where he often espoused homophobic opinions, lacks a sensible arc. That’s largely because while every talking head agrees that Richard was gay, his sexual orientation is examined at a surface level.

That shortcoming in “I Am Everything” often recalls the dearth of nuance in Reginald Hudlin’s Sidney Poitier documentary, “Sidney.” On their face, both films attempt to chronicle the lives of two pioneering Black men following their deaths (Richard passed away in 2020 and Poitier in 2022). The recent wake of their departure partly caused both filmmakers to skip over the more complicated components of each subject’s respective existence. In the case of Poitier, it was his relationship with Diahann Carroll; with Richard, it’s the expression of his sexual desires.

When Cortés examines Richard’s enrollment in Oakwood College to study theology, the director makes it seem like Richard left the school because he married Ernestine Harvin; in reality, he was expelled for exposing himself to another male student. She elides his arrests for voyeurism. And doesn’t include interviews with any of his male partners. For a film so interested in Richard’s legacy as a queer Black man, that queerness only exists in regards to his appearance — but not in an overtly sexual way. (The exceptions are the broad mention of orgies.)

Maybe Cortés couldn’t find or convince any of Richard’s male partners to go on the record about him? That inability, unfortunately, restricts our sense of him — in male relationships, was he kind, thoughtful, or guarded? It’s as though the film is saying that we’re still not ready to have a full conversation about a Black queer star. As though we need a “print the legend” version first, because the artist’s image cannot withstand a warts-and-all recounting.

It’s telling that the only corner of Richard’s personal life we learn about, the gender normative one, comes from a woman who says that she was the love of Richard’s life. Are Black filmmakers too cognizant of the historical undermining of Black talent, often through their personal lives? While keeping that question in mind, one must also wonder whether the deification of Black creatives causes an equally harmful erasure of another kind.

As with any music documentary, the general success of the film will depend upon your connection to the artist’s catalog. For Little Richard, the DNA to the soundtrack of our lives, that is an easy embrace. We come away from Cortés’ documentary with a larger appreciation of Richard’s hits and his innovations (from his fashions to his musicality) — even if Richard the person remains obscured.

Little Richard: I Am Everything 2023 Movie Review