Little Richard in Los Angeles, September 2, 1956 (all photos courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

From the duly ribald to the shockingly reverent, rock and roll icon Little Richard was a walking contradiction if there ever was one. Or rather, he was a gyrating, piano-mounting, shirt-flinging contradiction who spent just as much time in his long, embattled life preaching the Gospel, peddling Bibles, and saving sinners like himself from the fires of hell. (The original refrain to 1955’s “Tutti Frutti” was about anal sex, and he enrolled in a theological seminary in the late ’50s.)

If that seems like a lot to take on, that’s because it is. Three years after the artist’s death, Lisa Cortés’s new documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything, honors the a-lot-ness that made the artist a 20th-century pioneer, while also acknowledging the bumps along the trail he blazed. Born Richard Wayne Penniman, one of 12 children raised in Depression-era Macon, Georgia, Little Richard seems to epitomize the American Dream: the rise to fame via grit and talent — against all odds. Both gay and physically challenged (one leg was shorter than the other), in addition to being Black, poor, and Southern during the height of Jim Crow, Richard faced difficulties almost unquantifiable in the present day. “I couldn’t do nothing good,” an adult Richard recounts of his boyhood, a time when his father kicked him out of the house for being effeminate. 

From John Waters to Mick Jagger to members of Little Richard’s original band, a bevy of 20th-century icons speak to his contributions to 50 years of pop culture. Meanwhile, contemporary Black performers and intellectuals — Fredara Hadley, Tavia N’yongo, Jason King, and Billy Porter among them — reflect on what it means to inherit a “legacy” that is, as scholar Ashon Crawley puts it, avowedly “complex.”

“I was gay all my life. I believe I was one of the first gay people to come out,” Richard tells David Letterman in 1982, one of the many talk show interviews featured throughout the film. “But God made me believe that he made Adam to be with Eve, not with Steve.” From his early ’50s drag performances as Princess Lavonne for the Chitlin’ Circuit to renouncing homosexuality less than a decade later, Little Richard vacillated between these poles his entire life. According to his bandmates, he often had a bible in his bed — along with a bunch of naked men. His pendulum swung between religious piety and secular showmanship.

TLittle Richard at Wembley Stadium, London, September 14, 1974 (photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot)

To reckon with his identity is thus to wrestle with repression both singularly his and broadly experienced across his community. And yet, from a 2023 vantage, the archival photography of Richard’s early entertainment days truly astounds in its degree of sexual deviance: the raucous equivalent of Weimar cabaret in the deeply Christian Black South. “The South is the home of all things queer,” asserts Zandria Robinson, a sociologist and pop culture scholar, “of the different, of the non-normative, of the other side of the Gothic, of the grotesque.”

Underscoring seminal historic moments in the life of Little Richard, iridescent pixie dust floats between archival footage and wild montages of flower pistils swelling, cells splitting, and sperm twerking, segueing to scenes of contemporary Black performers for whom he paved the way — from his percussive right hand on the piano keys to his unabashed flamboyance onstage. While at times the pixie dust feels a bit heavy handed in emphasizing his enduring presence, other scenes honor the truly kaleidoscopic reach of his creative power, which he, too, inherited from visionaries who came before. Just as Sister Rosetta Thorpe’s thundering guitar riffs mingle with those of folk-gospel singer Valerie June, Little Richard’s key strokes merge with that of pianist Cory Henry.

The doc’s main achievement is, arguably, also its central weakness. We are invited to revel in Richard’s rise and subsequent legacy just as we might root for any other Great Man of American history of singular brilliance. And in a lot of ways, that feels right. But the story of Little Richard is also, perhaps most powerfully, a story of exploitation and the disenfranchisement of Black Americans. As Cortés takes pains to point out, Little Richard was denied his due for most of his performing life; his work made millions (maybe billions?) of dollars for other performers and producers, of which the overwhelming majority were White. “He had mentioned … how he felt he didn’t get what he deserved,” Charles Glenn, his longtime guitarist, shares with tears streaming down his face. “He created all this music and nobody gave him anything for it.”

The film culminates in what seems a moment of triumph: Richard’s acceptance of The Award of Merit at the 1987 American Music Awards, when he finally received public recognition for his indelible imprint on the rock and roll genre. Twenty minutes later, the piano keys swell and the credits roll, and we are clearly meant to celebrate his life as nothing less than remarkable. And of course it was. Sweaty, sequined, and screaming to the crowd, Little Richard was a flawed, yet singular visionary — and it’s a testament to Cortés that acknowledging his flaws doesn’t mean forfeiting his legacy. But at the same time, it felt a bit revisionist to leave out the last two decades of his life, during which he again capitulated to homophobic Christian conservatism. We catch barely a glimpse of the man in the 21st century, and learn nothing of his slow demise of bone cancer while living in downtown Nashville. In 2020, Richard was buried at Oakwood University Cemetery, the same place he studied theology more than 60 years earlier.

“He opened up a way,” says Crawley soberly, “saying, ‘We can get to this place, but I may not get there with you.’” And remarkable as that way was, a stronger movie would have been willing to devastate to the same degree that it dazzles.

Little Richard in Los Angeles, September 2, 1956

Little Richard: I Am Everything is currently in theaters and available to stream.

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with recent contributions to Jacobin, Poetry, The Baffler, and The Hopkins Review. Her second volume of poetry, Francofilaments, is forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books....