Sundance 2023: Little Richard Documentary 'I Am Everything' Doesn't Tell Viewers Everything Directed by Lisa Cortés
Published Jan 26, 2023Documentarians have a choice to make before they hit record: do we make a film that simply collates information and presents it as is, leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions? Or do we tailor our interviews and footage to elicit a specific opinion of our subject? Lisa Cortés decidedly falls into the latter camp. I don't disparage a filmmaker for making such a pointed decision, but when presenting a figure as complex (and, let's face it, as messy) as Little Richard, the fit-for-purpose approach creates gaps in storytelling that become glaring.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman, Little Richard is one of the great pioneers of rock 'n'd roll and is often credited as the architect of the genre. There is a resolute feeling of resentment overriding the bulk of Little Richard: I Am Everything, which is richly deserved. There's a sense of anger from the talking head interviews, including Billy Porter and Little Richard's old bandmates, and from Little Richard himself in old interviews and television appearances when discussing the artist's unacknowledged credit at the time.
While Elvis Presley has earned his place in music history, the Black musicians who inspired and influenced him — like Little Richard, Fats Domino, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Boy Arthur Crudup, among others — have only relatively recently been given their due, despite Presley's praise and recognition of them in his lifetime. Little Richard's influence in particular can be seen across not just Presley's career, but also with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and so on. I Am Everything lays out the argument convincingly for Little Richard's earned title as the architect of rock 'n' roll, and why racial prejudices and homophobia prevented him from being given this title earlier.
Curiously, given that I Am Everything is a music documentary of an artist with some great bops like "Tutti Frutti" and "Long Tall Sally," not much time or insight is paid to Little Richard's musical ingenuity or process. Instead, we move through his early success at a breakneck pace — which, admittedly, is fitting for a frenetic artist like Little Richard. His gospel years and turn to religion are just as quickly glossed through, and we're left reconciling his influence on some of music's biggest players.
Where I Am Everything raises the highest eyebrow is in addressing Little Richard's sexuality. The film presents Little Richard as a queer icon, pointing specifically to his flamboyant dress sense and moves on stage, as well as the origins of some of his songs (namely "Tutti Frutti" being about gay sex). While his sexual exploits with men and women have been well documented throughout his life, Little Richard denounced homosexuality in his later years; as late as 2017, a few years before his death in 2020, he made disparaging comments about gay and transgender people.
The film does acknowledge some of these remarks, showing a clip from Late Night with David Letterman when Little Richard declares his devotion to Christ over his sexual orientation ("I was one of the first gay people to come out. But God let me know that he made Adam be with Eve, not Steve"). And one scholar in the film describes the contrast in this aspect of Little Richard's life aptly: "He was good at liberating others, but not himself."
I Am Everything's thesis is that rock 'n' roll has its origins in Black and queer culture by way of Little Richard, but Little Richard himself openly denounced his queerness; as with every other aspect of the film, this clash is quickly noted and just as quickly left behind. Little Richard's musical prowess speaks for itself, but his apparent internalized homophobia and self-denial needs far more deconstruction and discussion than the film allows. Ironically, I Am Everything admonishes the lack of recognition given to Little Richard's musical contributions, yet it makes the same mistake with its handling of his complicated queer legacy.
Trying to present a fulsome portrait of an artist as intricate as Little Richard is an uphill battle. A life as lived as his would require hours of film to even gather some semblance of understanding, but without properly addressing a crucial change in his life that complicates his legacy, Little Richard: I Am Everything feels incomplete. However, where the film does succeed is in celebrating his music and showmanship that inspired singers from Elvis all the way to Harry Styles. A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom, indeed.
The 2023 Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19 to 29. Get information about online or in-person screenings at the festival's website. (Magnolia)