by Rebecca M. Alvin
The history of rock ’n’ roll music is more a patchwork quilt of converging influences than it is a direct line from one inventor to a whole new genre of music. Clearly, its roots are in the music of Black American musicians of the South, who influenced white musicians before their music found its way to England and then back again and then all over the world. But if you had to pick America’s first rock ’n’ roll star, it would have to be Little Richard.
A complex figure who rose to fame despite what one would think of as insurmountable obstacles to mainstream acceptance, Little Richard’s talent, authenticity, and stage presence pushed past racism, homophobia, gender norms, sexual repression, and all of the other restrictions of his early 1950s entrance into the world of performance in the American South, and gave birth to everything that came after it.
Sweat dripping off of his brow, a smile of genuine joy and delight lighting up his face, and eyes that can barely contain the swirl of energy, creativity, and mischief within, Little Richard gave himself over to his live performances like no one else. To witness that tsunami of musical vitality and undeniable sexuality in-person must have been an unforgettable experience for the millions around the world who got to see him perform. While filmmaker Lisa Cortés never saw him perform live, she was keenly aware of his powerful stage presence and made it an essential component of her new film Little Richard: I Am Everything, screening at Waters Edge Cinema April 15, one week before its official release.
“I think that’s why I sought, in making this film, for it to feel as immersive as possible,” she explains. “We had an incredible archival team that did a very deep search to find performances through the years. They also did a deep search to see how we could find his voice to tell his story. That was something that was important for me because he often felt, I think, that he didn’t have agency and that he had been silenced and made invisible for some of his accomplishments. And I wanted to be corrective in the storytelling, by allowing him to be centered. And for the music to really take us through Richard’s performances from the beginning of his career in the mid-50s through to those at the end of his life.”
Little Richard often introduced himself as “Little Richard from Macon, Georgia,” foregrounding himself as a product of the South with both pride in his origins and an acknowledgment of the inescapable ties that bound him to a culture that both restricted and inspired him. The American South is a complicated place, one which holds certain idiosyncrasies in addition to its racial history and conservative traditions, that are poorly understood from the outside. While it never was a bastion of freedom for the LGBTQ community, there’s an oddness to the South that connects it to queerness somehow, from its beauty pageant culture to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. As Zandria Robinson, a sociologist and professor of African American Studies at Georgetown University, puts it in the film, it goes beyond this. “The South is the home of all things queer, of the different, of the non-normative, of the other side, of the gothic, of the grotesque,” she says. “Note that queerness is not just about sexuality but about a presence in a space that is different from what we require or expect, different from the norm.”
“I thought it was important framing, in telling Richard’s story,” Cortés says of his southernness. “I don’t have that literal connection, but I have the legacy connection as an African-American to the South, which is a place of great invention, but also a place of great complexity and trauma. And so, I think with Little Richard, what is always important for me in this film is for people to not see him as monolithic not to see him as that one-note joke… but to see that he was informed by many things, starting with the unique geographical location that he grew up in with a strong sense of tradition. And then his family of course, and then the musical influences. You know, he is the sum of many parts, a sum that he owned and reclaimed and renamed on his own. And, you know, that’s a part of the joy of making this film, was that of discovery.”
His father, the film tells us, was a minister who also owned a nightclub and supported his 12 children with a bootlegging business. Born into a world of contradictions, it’s no wonder Richard would develop into a complicated man himself. A Black man in the South in the 1950s leaning into his queerness rather than reining it in, he stands as a model of the very transgressiveness that made rock n’ roll so appealing to the newly created class of almost-adults, “teenagers,” that emerged in the post-War period. Little Richard never had a “coming out” moment. He presented himself authentically from the start. In fact, he made the case in later interviews that his homosexuality protected him in a strange way because there he was exciting young white girls in a way that would have been threatening then and dangerous for him (his rise to fame is simultaneous with the murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was beaten and murdered for supposedly whistling at a white girl in the South). He made no real attempt to hide his sexuality, early on. Case in point, the original lyrics to “Tutti Frutti,” the song that not only catapulted him to stardom, but later became a huge hit for Pat Boone, of all people, are this:
If it don’t fit
Don’t force it
You can grease it
Make it easy
But the record company that signed him on the basis of that song, had a songwriter, Dorothy LaBostrie, clean it up, and the rest is history.
And yet his story is not uncomplicated by personal demons, problematic contradictions, battles with the social constrictions of his time, and exploitation by an industry known for its greed and deceit, especially toward early Black musicians, the innovators of everything we know as modern American music. The intersectionality of his identity as well as the legacy that lives on everywhere you look—not only in music but in fashion, in film, pop culture, and in the doors he knocked down more than 60 years ago that have had ripple effects beyond the entertainment industry and into our private and political lives. Little Richard was everything in that he was an extraordinarily complex person, and he is also everything because his DNA can be found everywhere. The film reflects this reality in every aspect of its construction, from the extensive interviews with him and with those who knew him and/or were influenced by him, like Mick Jagger and John Waters, to the visual design that brings imagery from the cosmos, nature, and a multitude of contemporary cultural references to demonstrate the ubiquity of his impact.
Cortés explains, “Well, you know, I think in creating a vocabulary for the film, we knew that there was archival [footage], we had Richards voiceover, we had family, musicians he worked with, an incredible group of scholars, all who had great love and respect for him. But that you know, there was also this need to expand emotionally how you engage with the film. So, you know when ‘Tutti Frutti’ comes on the scene in 1955, it introduces an artist that there’s nobody like him, and it’s an artist who is explosive, and supernatural and elemental. And so like, you want to see stars exploding, lava erupting, and drag queens twirling because he is all of that!”
There were many incarnations of Little Richard as he went back and forth between being himself in the most out loud and proud way possible and reckoning with the religious and personal baggage that caused him to pull back, at one point, when he was already hugely famous, disappearing into college life at Oakwood College, a religious school where he met and married Ernestine Harvin. Or later in his career, when he denounced his sexuality—never in a vengeful, hateful way, but nonetheless his words had a damaging impact on those who had at one time found his openly queer persona liberating and inspiring.
Some of the cultural and musical scholars in the film add important context to all of this and remind us that while he was a gift for all of us who value the freedom to be who we are openly and without restraint, he was after all a human being, a product of this culture, with all of its racist, homophobic, and religious underpinnings.
“That’s what I’ve always loved about the title Little Richard: I am Everything,” Cortés says. “Because he’s not monolithic. He is, as someone says in the film, it’s about the multitudes that we and he contain, that all of us contain, and how in Richard’s life he is traveling through his interiority. And at times he’s in conflict. But this is what makes him beautifully human.”
Lisa Cortés will be presenting her film Little Richard: I Am Everything (2023, 98 min.) at Waters Edge Cinema, 237 Commercial St., 2nd Fl., in Provincetown on Saturday, April 15, 7 p.m.. She will attend a post-screening Q&A and reception. Tickets ($20/$15 members) for this Provincetown International Film Festival benefit are available online at provincetownfilm.org.