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CNN's new Little Richard documentary is a worthy tribute to the rock 'n' roll legend

The new documentary <em>Little Richard: I Am Everything</em> premieres Monday Sept. 4. Above, Little Richard performs in 1975.
Angela Deane-Drummond
vening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The new documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything premieres Monday Sept. 4. Above, Little Richard performs in 1975.

There is one question that stands at the heart of the CNN documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything, emerging as something of a mission statement for the film. And it's best articulated by Fredara Hadley, a ethnomusicologist at the Julliard School.

"What would it do to the American mythology of rock music," Hadley says, "to say that its pioneers were Black queer people?"

A movie that re-centers Little Richard's story

Director Lisa Cortes builds her film around that question. The movie often unfolds like it's sprinkled with pixie dust, alternating clips of powerhouse performances by Little Richard and random footage of shooting stars with incisive interviews from relatives, former bandmates, former lovers and the many celebrities he inspired.

For music fans, the film is a poignant reminder of just how good Little Richard was as a performer and singer, especially in the 1950s and '60s. We see him captivate crowds with his percussive piano style and preacher's swagger, sweating through loads of pancake makeup with a pencil-thin moustasche and serious pompadour hairstyle.

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We watch Mick Jagger describe how touring with Little Richard taught him to work a stage, while Paul McCartney explains how his shouts on Beatles records were also inspired by him. Billy Porter tells the camera, "the reason why I'm finally, finally able as a Black queer man to show up and do anything I want, is because of him." Maverick director John Waters — who says his own pencil-thin moustache is partly a tribute to the man called the architect of rock 'n' roll — recalls stealing a record of his hit Lucille as a youth.

"The first songs that you love that your parents hate is the beginning of the soundtrack of your life," adds Waters, known for directing such transgressive, button-pushing films as Pink Flamingos and Hairspray. "And in my case, it was most definitely Lucille."

The film also captures how Little Richard was a singular figure as a sex symbol and pop music idol. On one level, he embodied a type of rule breaking and danger that was unheard of at the time — especially among white teenagers from the Baby Boomer generation — as a sexy, pretty, gender-bending star who brought Black and white fans together, despite segregation laws and disapproving adults.

As the movie notes, because he was so pretty and open about his sexuality, Little Richard could avoid being perceived as a sexual threat to white women, though he was still occasionally arrested and harassed by law enforcement.

Born Richard Penniman in Macon, Ga. in 1932, Little Richard was openly gay from a young age, kicked out of his family home by a father who expected him to be more masculine. Performing on the "chitlin' circuit" of Black-centered clubs through the South, he worked early shows singing in drag, later learning his performing style and piano playing from other Black gay performers at the time like Billy Wright and Esquerita.

According to the film, when one of his early recording sessions wasn't going well he went to a nearby bar to blow off steam. He jumped on a piano there and played a song about anal sex.

For the film, keyboardist and singer Cory Henry recreates the moment Little Richard sang "Tutti Fruitti" with its original lyrics: "Tutti Fruitti/good booty." The song, with sanitized lyrics, became Little Richard's first big hit.

Torn between performing and religion

The film also delves into periods when he became devoutly religious, denouncing his life as a gay man and his success in rock 'n' roll. At those times, Little Richard seemed to believe his performances encouraged the devil; but his Baby Boomer fans and fellow musicians saw them as liberation and inspiration.

This tension is shown in several moments: he appears on Late Night with David Letterman in a conservative-looking suit and natural haircut to declare God "made Adam to be with Eve, not Steve"; and a few years before his death, in 2020, he does an interview in a wheelchair without makeup or a wig, with balding hair, to denounce rock 'n' roll.

One expert notes, "When I hear his passionate singing [from the '80s and earlier], it's hard to tell how much is running towards God, and how much is running away from himself."

Indeed, that may be the most profound paradox revealed by Little Richard: I Am Everything — the documentary is a masterpiece and worthy tribute, which explores how an artist who tapped queer culture to liberate fellow musicians and audiences always struggled to liberate himself.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.