Reel Reviews | Little Richard: I Am Everything (Sundance ’23)

by Tim Gordon

Will the Architect of Rock and Roll Finally Get His Due?

Three years after his death, unquestionably one of the most seminal figures in music history, Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard’s incredible story, finally is told through Lisa Cortes, sensational documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything.

While the music existed before him, Richard’s style, bravado, sexuality, confidence, and, importantly, his unparalleled musical ability made him one of the biggest stars at the dawn of Rock & Roll. It’s fair to say that his emergence changed EVERYTHING and is one of the most defining moments in popular music history.

Born in raised in Macon, Georgia, he was one of twelve children who even at an early age knew that he was different. Ostracized by his father for his effeminate tendencies, he was put out of the house. Despite his desire to be a minister when he was young and very much a queer child, he would battle with the contradictions of his faith and his sexuality throughout his life. Even as he began the journey to hone his style, Richard was inspired by many pioneers and his personal heroes, including Sister Rosetta Tharp, Billy Wright, and the man who taught him to play the piano, Esquerita. But it was his collaboration with Specialty Records that would make history and introduce the world to a new era in music.

Beginning with Tutti Frutti in 1955, Richard charted seven singles in the United States alone in 1956, including Slippin’ and Slidin‘, Rip It Up, Ready Teddy, “The Girl Can’t Help It, and Lucille. By the time he left Specialty in 1959, Richard had scored a total of nine top 40 pop singles and seventeen top 40 R&B singles. But at the height of his success, he had an epiphany and walked away from Rock and Roll to follow his faith. His about-face disappointed many in the LGBTQ+ community who idolized his music, but more importantly, the freedom that he gave them to be themselves.

One of Richard’s greatest frustrations was the fact that despite his great success, his contemporaries covered his songs and sold more copies than he as well as he felt that he never received the credit he rightly deserved for his monumental contribution to Rock & Roll. His genius was never acknowledged with Grammy Awards or other music honors. Even when he was inducted into the inaugural class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Richard couldn’t enjoy the moment because he was involved in an auto accident.

In lesser hands, Richard’s life story would feel overstuffed but in the careful hands of Emmy Award winner Lisa Cortes, she successfully navigates over seven decades of his life into a breezy 98 minutes that manages to capture not just the essence of his bold and audacious persona but his complex personal life, as well. Along the way, many of the largest figures in pop music pay homage to the lasting inspiration that he provided creating the blueprint for rock and roll icons. Seminal figures such as Elvis Presley, Paul McCarthy, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and others acknowledge the true “King of Rock and Roll,” and most importantly the man who is nicknamed “The Architect of Rock and Roll.” It’s hard to imagine artists such as Elton John, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Prince, and so many others that were allowed to be themselves, thanks to Richard.

His constant struggles trying to reconcile his God-given talent with his relationship with God is the running theme throughout the doc. One could feel his inner turmoil and it draws the audience deeper into his story. As someone mentioned in the doc, “he was good at liberating other people, but not so good at liberating himself. While what happened to him wasn’t appropriation but obliteration, Cortes deserves a lion’s share of credit for this lasting document of a man, who was and still is larger than life. Indeed, we acknowledge that in the history of popular music, Little Richard is truly EVERYTHING!

Grade: A