Of all of the early rock-and-roll progenitors, Little Richard arguably greatest embodied the spirit of the music—its rebellious temperament, its cross-racial enchantment, its youthful ecstasy. He imbued the piano with rhythm and blues, frenetically pounding on the keys to generate an up-tempo sound that matched his gospel-influenced vocals. His music crossed the colour barrier, discovering distinctive buy with white audiences; his unabashed Blackness and decoratively androgynous model struck the established order like a battering ram. He straight impressed acts just like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, whose members considered Little Richard as a borderline-religious icon, and his affect might be felt by the stage presence of myriad later artists, together with David Bowie and Prince. However like too many influential Black artists of his technology, he by no means fairly acquired his due throughout his lifetime.
Sadly, Lisa Cortés’s new documentary, Little Richard: I Am Every little thing, makes the case for Little Richard’s unimpeachable greatness within the driest format conceivable: a soup-to-nuts biography that performs like a historical past lecture. The movie takes the usual music-documentary strategy—a combination of archival live performance footage, B-roll, and tv appearances interspersed with speaking head commentary from quite a lot of students and contemporaries. We dutifully find out about Little Richard’s early experiences in varied church buildings, the event of his stage antics, the risqué origins of his first hit, “Tutti Frutti” (it’s about anal intercourse!), his sexual debauchery and drug dependancy, and so forth. Cortés sometimes options transient performances of Richard’s songs from present musicians, which try and convey the music’s evergreen nature, however in any other case it is a by-the-book shiny profile that drags at almost 100 minutes.
I Am Every little thing transparently aspires to show youthful generations about Little Richard and argue for his persevering with relevance, so it’s considerably comprehensible that it adopts a holistically instructional strategy. In any case, how many individuals are presently acquainted with Fifties rock-and-roll mythologies, not to mention folks like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “godmother of rock and roll,” and musician Billy Wright, who was Little Richard’s direct inventive affect—or the existence of the Chitlin’ Circuit, a collection of efficiency venues that catered to Black entertainers?
But the movie’s monotonous, chronological presentation of info can’t assist however run counter to its goals, even because the principally Black speaking heads attempt to precisely body the musician as a radical character. Because the working assumption is that the viewers isn’t conscious, for instance, that the idea of the “teenager” was a midcentury phenomenon, or that the youth’s postwar angst and need to interrupt free from the period’s social and sexual repression impressed widespread curiosity in rhythm-forward music, it’s tough to experiment with construction or kind, even when that may greatest pay tribute to Little Richard’s groundbreaking strategies.
The dealing with of Little Richard’s queerness—each his embrace of his sexual identification and his subsequent rejection of it—represents I Am Every little thing’s most compelling and irritating qualities. Commentary round his gender efficiency incessantly brings one of the best out of the movie, reminiscent of when author Zandria Robinson succinctly argues that the South is “the house of all issues queer,” and that queerness isn’t nearly sexuality—it’s “a few presence in an area that’s totally different from what we require or anticipate.” Little Richard’s effeminate look was a sophisticated double-edged sword: His pancake make-up and pompadour coiffure counterintuitively garnered him a passionate white feminine viewers, as a result of he introduced as accessible and nonthreatening.
At his peak, Little Richard weaponized his sexuality as each a provocation and a advertising and marketing instrument, and infrequently wore it as a badge of honor. However his non secular upbringing and his recurrent forays into evangelicalism led him to publicly denounce homosexuality on a number of events, together with as late as in 2017. His oscillating delight and self-loathing are a key a part of Little Richard’s story, and whereas I Am Every little thing addresses the private contradictions head-on, the movie finally has too many irons within the hearth to provide the subject correct consideration. It’s simple to think about a model of I Am Every little thing that completely centered on Little Richard’s sexuality; that may have supplied the movie with extra focus, and elevated its most considerate moments.
Like many music documentaries of this ilk, the archival footage, most of which is broadly obtainable and has been featured in varied different documentaries or compilations, is the massive draw. It’s unquestionably electrical—there’s nonetheless nothing like watching him really yowl “a wop-bop-a-loo-mop, alop-bam-boom!” or bang on the piano prefer it’s a drum. Even the snippets of his varied interviews, nevertheless inconsistent they could be, painting the person as a magnetic, self-possessed determine who lower a swathe by Twentieth-century norms. Whereas I Am Every little thing does an enough job of explaining Little Richard, it might’t maintain a candle to truly watching him do his factor. Each time the movie cuts away to an ethnologist detailing the historic milieu or Billy Porter earnestly describing the impact Little Richard had on his profession, it sarcastically paints the person as a relic reasonably than situating him as a present-day concern.
Little Richard needed to witness his profession develop into sidelined in actual time as lots of his contemporaries profited from, and have been lauded for, his achievements. I Am Every little thing does its damnedest to attempt to rectify this inequity, however solely serves to create larger distance between him and his viewers.