Little Richard is a cultural icon but what do we really know about him, and what have we forgotten? He was born in Macon, Georgia to a conservative, small-town family. His father was both a minister and a nightclub owner. He blessed us with the anal sex anthem "Tutti Frutti." And Little Richard had an incredible gift. But still, there's so much more to discover.
A new documentary titled Little Richard: I Am Everything from director Lisa Cortés honors the late forefather of rock and roll with a deep dive into his life and hardships, interweaving his very queer upbringing with his open struggle with his homosexuality. "This is Little Richard's night motherfuckers!" Cortés yells to the packed premiere audience at Sundance Film Festival. The buzzing crowd cackles and applauds in agreement.
It’s easy to see why. With songs like “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally,” Richard shifted the culture, mashing the spirit of gospel and blues with something new, uptempo, and rebellious that later become known as rock and roll. Little Richard rose to fame in the 1950s and somehow held the power to bring Black and white kids together a decade before the civil rights movement. His energy was so exhilarating that even “if you were racist, you were listening to him,” says John Waters, a self-proclaimed Little Richard stan, in the doc.
There are tributes abound from cultural icons. Mick Jagger makes an appearance alongside Tom Petty, David Bowie, Billy Porter, and even The Beatles to discuss how impactful Little Richard’s music was to them, how he influenced the ways they wrote songs, and even performed. Not to mention the blatant rip-offs by artists like Elvis Presley. Richard’s impact is as bright as a star.
“How the heck did he get out there?” Cortés marvels to Out on the Sundance red carpet. “It's 1955. Emmett Till is killed that year. How does this queer black man go out and bring black and white teenagers together? How does he go to England and The Beatles sit at his feet, the Rolling Stones sit at his feet? He's from Macon, Georgia. He didn't have a formal education. He just had spirit and genius. And that is a story about when you don't allow yourself to be put in a box, you can really change the world.”
It wasn’t an easy road. When he first left home at a young age, he took refuge at queer clubs where he even performed in drag. And in his regular shows, he wore makeup and flashy clothes. How did he play the “chitlin circuit” in the south looking like that? Everyone from his band to his inner circles knew him as an out gay man. And though Little Richard began with segregated shows, he knew he had something magical when the white kids started crashing them.
His sexuality was always the elephant in the room, even within himself. Little Richard renounced his sexuality many times throughout his life and even went to seminary school where he proposed to a woman. Richard seemed to revert back to his inner minister when he was made more aware of his mortality, scared his sexual escapades and drug use would send him to hell, but the film takes care not to judge and respects his choices. Cortés says they wanted to explore “his struggle with rectifying his faith with being queer,” and the documentary does that lovingly to show how he paved the way for not only rock and roll, but for the generations of queer talent that got us to where we are today.
He was undeniably a star, even when people and the industry underestimated him, stole from him, or refused to recognize the trailblazing he did. Little Richard’s story isn’t just the story of an inventor of rock and roll, but a queer Black man growing up in the south who, at times, hated his sexuality, sure. But ultimately, his queerness gave him the talent and courage to create an entire lane of his own, an entire genre that would be replicated, but can never be duplicated. Little Richard’s spirit lives on today, everywhere.