‘Little Richard: I Am Everything’ Review: Doc doesn’t give it his all

It’s like the movie is saying we’re still not ready to have a full conversation about a black queer star.

What Lisa Corté’s bubbly but incomplete documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything makes clear are the complications in Little Richard’s life. Here was a queer black guy from Macon, Georgia who was a proudly flamboyant and irresistibly charming ball of energy turned rock ‘n’ roll. So resonant is the cultural touchstones of male-born Richard Wayne Penniman that we know “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” and more, not as songs but as lexicons of ourselves. And yet, how could a man who dressed with wild frankness—his glittery jumpsuit, a messy hairdo, caked with makeup—appear so self-absorbed?

In Little Richard: I Am Everything, Cortés sets out to answer that question. Unlike her previous film, which centered on Stacey Abrams’ All In: The Fight for Democracy (co-directed by Liz Garbus), her blow to Richard’s life and career never manages to separate the man himself from his own myth-making .

Cortés is admittedly taking on a difficult task. Aside from Robert Townsend’s TV movie Little Richard, in which Leon played the singer (a classic IMO), the seminal actor never got the cinematic credit he deserved. It’s a challenge she successfully meets in the opening minutes of “I Am Everything”: The film’s breakneck pacing and its kinetic use of Richard’s concert footage shoots us out of a cannon. We zoom through the singer’s early life — like his troubled relationship with his father — to openly gay black artists Billy Wright and Esquerita, and the gospel singers like the Ward Singers and Marion Williams who rooted the exuberant artist in his style.

Through talking heads like the touching Billy Porter and the cheeky John Waters, we are further drawn into Richard’s importance as a gay black man on the national stage. Amusingly, Cortés also sets an archival interview with Richard, in which he recalls how an openly gay song like “Tutti Frutti” was sanitized into a major chart hit, to a montage of standard nature videos coming together in a big bang. The director’s other visual flairs add other heady kitsch flavors to the music, such as: B. broken compositions, stardust shrouding the screen, gossamer-thin ethereal filters, and endearingly cheesy staged performances of Richard’s memorable songs from the likes of Cory Henry and Valerie June. The film fully captures the groundbreaking singer’s charged camp spirit.

Cortés also balances Richard’s now-recognized musical importance against an obliteration of his legacy, committed for decades by white people, ultimately affecting Richard’s understandable resentment. However, it is less effective when it comes to questioning the artist’s contradictory relationship to his or her sexuality. His escapes from rock ‘n’ roll towards the staid scenes of the church, where he often expressed homophobic opinions, for example, lack a reasonable arc, especially since every speaker agrees that Richard was gay but explores his sexual orientation in the film becomes surface level.

This lack of “I Am Everything” is often reminiscent of the lack of nuance in Reginald Hudlin’s documentary about Sidney Poitier, “Sidney Poitier.” On the face of it, both films attempt to chronicle the lives of two seminal black men after their deaths (Richard died in 2020 and Poitier in 2022). The recent consequence of their departure caused both filmmakers, in part, to skip the more complicated components of their respective subjects’ respective existences: in Poitier’s case it was his relationship with Diahann Carroll; in Richard’s it is the expression of his sexual desires. As Cortés goes through Richard’s enrollment in theology at Oakwood College, where he eventually married Ernestine Harvin, the director makes it appear as if Richard left the school because of this connection, when in fact he was expelled from the school for marrying another male had exposed students. She evades his arrests for voyeurism. And does not include interviews with any of his male partners. For a film that cares so much about Richard’s legacy as a queer black man, in this documentary, that queerness only exists in terms of his looks. But not in an overtly sexual way (the exceptions being the widespread mention of orgies).

Perhaps Cortés couldn’t find or convince any of Richard’s male partners to cover him? Unfortunately, this inability limits our idea of ​​him – was he friendly, thoughtful, or reserved in male relationships? It’s like the movie is saying we’re still not ready to have a full conversation about a black queer star. As if we needed a Print the Legend version first because the artist’s image can’t stand up to a superficial narrative. In that sense, it is significant that the only corner of Richard’s personal life that we learn of that is gender normative comes from a woman who says she was the love of Richard’s life. Are black filmmakers overly aware of the historical undermining of black talent, often through their personal lives? While considering this question, one must also ask whether the deification of Black creatives is causing an equally pernicious annihilation of a different kind.

Of course, as with any music documentary, the overall success of the film depends on your connection to the artist’s catalogue. For Little Richard, the DNA of the soundtrack of our lives, this leap forward, albeit laced with the film’s styling, is an easy hug. We leave Corté’s documentary with a greater appreciation for Richard’s hits and his innovations (from his fashion to his musicianship) – even if the person Richard remains in the dark.

Grade: C+

Little Richard: I Am Everything premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It was acquired by CNN Films/HBO Max and will hit the network and streamers later this year.

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https://www.indiewire.com/2023/01/little-richard-i-am-everything-review-1234801688/ ‘Little Richard: I Am Everything’ Review: Doc doesn’t give it his all

Lindsay Lowe

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