In 1962, music manager Brian Epstein got the bright idea to introduce a then little-known band he had signed, The Beatles, to the already legendary musician Little Richard, who was doing a whirlwind UK tour to make some quick cash.
LITTLE RICHARD: I AM EVERYTHING ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
“It’s hard for people to imagine how thrilled the four of us were,” recalls John Lennon in one of the nearly uncountable archive interviews that make up the bulk of Lisa Cortés’ remarkable documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything. “We were almost paralyzed with adoration.”
You can understand the lads’ state of shock. At that point in his utterly transformative and shockingly up-and-down career, Little Richard had not only renounced the horny rave-ups that made him a mid-50’s sensation in favor of studying and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, but he had also hosted burnings of his own landmark records, which had laid the foundation for rock music as we know it. The Beatles were not simply meeting their idol; they were witnessing the second coming.
If the intention of Cortés’ film was merely to show the depth of Little Richard’s impact on the generation of rockers who would take his place on the charts while also securing his rightful place as the Architect of Rock & Roll, it would be commendable, though perhaps a little dull. But Cortés— who co-directed All In: The Fight for Democracy, an exploration of the United States’ long history of voter suppression— has a grander and more urgent ambition in mind.
The movie, one of the must-see documentaries out of a stacked lineup at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, uses Richard’s story as a means of showing how queerness and Blackness have functioned throughout American culture and society, especially in the South. In the process, the movie helps us understand and navigate a national moment of agitation and anxiety around both identities, one that’s been largely invented by right-wing politicians and the interests that back them.
But while the subject of her film used his flamboyant nature, church-rooted vocals, and percussive piano to invent something completely fresh, Cortés has stuck to the tried and true.
She relies greatly on the incisive insight of a dream team of academics, among them sociologist and Georgetown professor Zandria Robinson, Yale Theater Department Chair Tavia Nyong’o and Juilliard ethnomusicologist Fredara Hadley. (The preponderance of professorial talking heads speaking about a single outsized personality sometimes gives Cortés’ movie the feeling of a college faculty meeting where younger members are chirping about a long-tenured professor.)
Mick Jagger is on hand to provide both rock star glitz and a firsthand frame of reference: the Rolling Stones, back when they were mainly a blues cover band, opened for Little Richard for six weeks in 1963. (Jagger’s famous moves and ability to command a stage were partly inspired by Little Richard.)
Queer icons John Waters—who has maintained his famous pencil mustache for the last five decades chiefly as a tribute to Little Richard—and Billy Porter give keen perspective into the direct ways the Tutti-Frutti singer’s influence can be seen in today’s pop culture, even if Little Richard rejected his own sexuality during his life. “He was very good at liberating other people by his example,” explains Jason King, the Chair of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU. “He was not good at liberating himself.”
One quote of Porter’s—“Sometimes simply existing is a revolutionary act”—calls to mind Marlon Riggs’ groundbreaking 1989 experimental documentary Tongues Untied and its oft-repeated mantra, “Black men loving black men is a revolutionary act.” Riggs’ movie also dealt with the ever-evolving intersection of Blackness and queerness but did so with a searing intimacy and form-shattering exploratory spirit that Cortés’ film, with its extreme reliance on documentary conventions, often lacks.
Fortunately, Cortés’ subject—a queer, born-again Christian who was disabled at birth (one leg was longer than the other and contributed to his inimitable gait), living in a country shaped by racism—is about as far from conventional as one can get. Through the raunchy power of his singular music and the undeniable ebullience of his soul, he has the ability to transform even the squarest of spaces into something powerful, crucial, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.