Little Richard: I Am Everything 

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Little Richard: I Am Everything is that a lot of people knew something about the “Tutti Frutti” singer, but not many people knew everything about him. This documentary takes a look at the life and complicated legacy of this singular celebrity. Combining interview footage from scholars and friends with interviews from the man himself, it offers insight into how his shifting personal life reflected itself in his music, and vice versa.

Director Lisa Cortés starts off with a history of Richard Penniman’s upbringing, including getting tossed out of the house by his father for being gay. Influenced equally by gospel and R&B singers, he melded their vocal styles into something new, scoring hit after hit once a record label finally took a chance on him. Success only meant that many of his songs were re-recorded – and made into even bigger hits – by white artists like Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. This kicked off a lifelong feeling that he never got the respect he deserved.

That’s interesting material, as is the section devoted to the musicians he inspired, including the Beatles, David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones. Little Richard: I Am Everything charts how so much of rock-and-roll music goes directly back to what he did. You come away from the film more fully aware of what a pioneer he was. Also touched upon is how his songs united Black and white kids. They knew that most of them had coded lyrics pertaining to sex, and they were energized by the raucous sound he brought to them.

The best material, however, deals with his personal life. Little Richard was at times closeted, other times openly gay. At one point, he had a religious conversion and denounced homosexuality, proclaiming himself “cured.” How he presented himself went back and forth, often unpredictably. In the middle of his most devout Christian phase, when he only recorded gospel tunes, Richard toured overseas, unleashing the more familiar flamboyant side to foreign audiences.

Cortés gets to the heart of the contradiction, which was that, depending on the day, he could consider himself gay or straight, accepting of his homosexuality or seemingly in denial about it. A desire to be himself clashed with the Old Testament-based religion that was drilled into his head from childhood. Several of the interview subjects are in the LGBTQ+ community, so they offer incisive thoughts about his status as a gay icon with a few problematic elements.

Little Richard: I Am Everything glosses over its subject’s marriage to a woman, a portion of his life that would have further illuminated the shifting sexuality. The death of his brother, another seemingly significant event, is also rushed through without fully digging into its impact. Those matters aside, the documentary is, like Little Richard himself, colorful, humorous, and wildly entertaining. Whereas many rock docs are just recaps of someone’s career, this film attempts to – and generally succeeds at – giving you an idea of Little Richard’s complex psychology.

out of four

Little Richard: I Am Everything is unrated, but contains adult language and mature thematic content. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.