Little Richard: I Am Everything Dir: Lisa Cortés (Film Review)

Little Richard: I Am Everything, the title of this documentary about the self-proclaimed “architect of rock & roll” is anything but understated, just like its subject.

And what a subject.

Richard Wayne Penniman, aka Little Richard, is one of the most complex personalities to ever set foot on stage. And apologies to Elvis, Chuck, Buddy, Jerry Lee and Fats, but after you see I Am Everything you will understand why Little Richard really is the King Of Rock & Roll.

Unfortunately that crown slipped off numerous times during Richard’s long, controversial career.

Little RichardThe film begins with a montage of live performance including Richard’s co-headlining appearance (with Chuck Berry) at the 1972 London Rock & Roll Show held at Wembley Stadium. And yes, Richard put on a powerhouse performance…I was lucky enough to be there so I saw him in action…but what the film doesn’t show you is that Richard was almost booed off stage during that very same set because he had the nerve to a perform a lengthy striptease rather than banging out Good Golly Miss Molly.

And that fact sums Little Richard up in a nutshell. Even when he was on top of the world, creating was we now know as rock & roll, he managed to self-sabotage his career.

It was October 1957, and Little Richard already had over a dozen hits, stone-cold classics like Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, Rip It Up and The Girl Can’t Help It, yet upon landing in Sydney, Australia, Richard saw a “sign from God” (actually Sputnik 1 orbiting the Earth), threw his rings in Newcastle Harbour and gave up the Devil’s music to become a preacher.

One thing you can say about Little Richard, he never did anything by halves. Within weeks he was enrolled at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama studying theology.

Now, you may know that story, but I guarantee you that there are many, many stories about Richard told in this fascinating film that you haven’t heard.

Director Lisa Cortés gives us a very thorough, eye-opening account of young Richard’s formative years. He was 3rd of 12 children and his father was both a church deacon and a moonshine bootlegger…the apple rarely falls far from the tree.

Growing up poor in Macon, Georgia, Richard was exposed to the seedy side of life, but he also heard some fantastic music. At age 14, Richard found himself opening for Sister Rosetta Tharpe…not bad for a first gig.

As the film makes clear, Little Richard was an original, but he was also the sum of his influences including Tharpe, a little known singer named Billy Wright, the piano stylings of Ike Turner and the flamboyant Esquerita.

Cortes packs a lot into 98 minutes and pulls no punches. Richard’s sexuality is addressed and we even meet his wife. We also learn how Specialty Records stopped paying him royalties once he gave up rock & roll back in ‘57.

Of course he never really gave up rock & roll because he WAS rock & roll. Sadly Richard spent his later years having to speak out…basically blowing his own horn…because he never really got his due.

To be honest there is no one else who can claim to be so influential…from The Beatles to The Stones and just about everyone else, they all owe something to Little Richard. David Bowie claimed he wanted to ‘sound like Little Richard looked’ and one wonders if Bowie, Elton, Jagger, Michael Jackson or Prince could have become what they became without Richard going first.

Most of the folks who owe that debt of gratitude are on the film giving payback…Mick Jagger, John Waters, Paul McCartney, Tom Jones all front up.

And so they should.

So do yourself a favour, seek out this film and then turn up your record player…Wop bop a loo bop a lop bom bom never made more sense than it does now.

Marty Duda