Sundance Review: Rock Legend Gets Documentary Treatment in Little Richard: I Am Everything

The life of Richard Wayne Penniman (aka Little Richard) is one of almost constant, lifelong contradictions, mostly having to do with his embracing and then whole-heartedly rejecting his sexual identity. At this point, no one really questions his role as an architect of rock ’n’ roll, though many did for years, as white artists time and time again had hits with his original songs. But as Lisa Cortés’ (All In: The Fight For Democracy) documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything makes crystal clear, Richard also sometimes stood tall as the focal point for Black, queer musicians who were as afraid of God’s wrath at their lifestyle as they were public outrage.

With Little Richard: I Am Everything, the filmmaker pieces together the life story of the singer, piano player, sex symbol, fashion icon, and all-around entertainer as he came up through both family strife and early performances with the mother of rock, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who gave Richard his first break. But it was his transition to getting behind the piano that changed everything (some call him the Black Liberace). The archival footage at Cortés’ disposal is priceless, giving us the best example of Richard’s on-stage power (anyone who doesn’t see where Prince borrowed some of his early-years dance moves has their eyes closed). The costumes were androgynous on a good day, and according to some of his old interviews, he was taking part in orgies on a regular basis, mostly with men.

But at various times in his life, Penniman’s pendulum would swing in the other direction, and he spent years singing gospel music and fully criticizing his sinful gay years. As fascinating as it might have been to hear Richard sing spirituals like an angel, nothing really comes close to the way he belts out swinging rock music. Every time he came out of the Christian closet, he was introduced to and embraced by a new generation of fans both in the United States, but especially overseas, where they tended to celebrate the roots of rock music more fervently. The Beatles openly admitted that their “woo-ing” was borrowed from Richard (a truth that Richard mentions in every interview, whether he was asked about it or not). He was also in the first class of the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall of Fame, and gave a speech for the ages at the induction.

The film seems slightly polished, considering how messy the subject’s life was, but with countless testimonials from peers, family, and famous admirers, I Am Everything makes an ample case for Richard to be among modern music’s Mt. Rushmore. The film allows us to listen and watch him perform, and no other evidence is needed of his complicated greatness, even if he rejected it at times. He was one of the most successful outcast rockers in history, and because of that, he invented something that suited his style rather than conformed to what was already in existence. It’s a remarkable journey, and the film matches the energy and skill of its subject.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.