There is no question that Little Richard was a rock and roll pioneer. “I’m the one who started it all,” he once said. As the documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything reveals, Richard Penniman was also a very complicated and conflicted character. Director Lisa Cortés brings Little Richard’s story to life through a variety of film clips, photos and commentary from acquaintances, performers, writers, scholars, and even the man himself, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 87.
Penniman’s formative years receive a thorough investigation. His love for music originated from the church, something he would turn to throughout his life. But, as the film reminds us, being black and gay were challenges in the young singer’s journey. Even his father kicked him out of the house because he was “different.” As the music took root, so did Penniman’s propensity for flamboyance, style and showmanship, influenced by such noble names as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Billy Wright and Esquerita.
It wasn’t long until Penniman had a band — surviving members remember him for his generosity, brazenness, and spirit. Once “Tutti Frutti,” with cleaner lyrics, made its way to the underground Black radio stations and onto car radios, jukeboxes and eventually record stores, Little Richard’s trajectory was quick and efficient. As we find out, it was laced with conflict and bigotry. All early Black blues and rock musicians in 1950s white America struggled for rightful recognition. Not only was Little Richard robbed of big money and fame; both Elvis Presley and Pat Boone charted higher with “Tutti Frutti.”
Still, despite being Black and “different,” Little Richard performed on stages around the country, as well as on TV and in films, like “The Girl Can’t Help It.” Even his father welcomed him back to the family. Ironically, Little Richard’s best friend supposedly shot and killed his dad outside a bar a year after they reconciled. He then returned to the church and performed gospel music. Little detail of this period is revealed, as Little Richard returned to secular music in the 60s. And he embraced his sexuality far more openly. Orgies and drugs also came into play.
By the 1980s, Penniman combined his evangelistic life with his role as a rock and roll original. Little Richard: I Am Everything glosses over the singer’s latter days, leaving numerous milestones and accolades to the side. Part of the film’s problem is that it tends to focus on Little Richard’s issues over his triumphs. Instead of hearing from others besides Mick Jagger, Tom Jones and director John Waters on how much fun and inspiring Little Richard was, we get scholars Zandria Robinson and Fredara Hadley pontificating on Penniman’s inability to fit in. Considering Little Richard’s history and place in rock and roll, it’s a shame there weren’t any of his contemporaries and family members to substantiate the impact. Chances are you don’t live to be 87 if life beats you up too badly.
~ Shawn Perry