While accepting a special honor at the 1997 American Music Awards, Little Richard heaped some serious praise on himself.
“I am the originator,” he crowed. “I am the emancipator. I am the architect of rock ‘n’ roll.”
He had to declare those things for himself. No one else was doing it for him.
Richard Wayne Penniman, who died in May 2020 at age 87, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class in 1986. Still, he never quite received the recognition he deserved for his role in creating a new kind of music that expressed youthful euphoria and sexualized swagger.
The documentarian Lisa Cortés has made films about social justice (“All In: The Fight for Democracy,” 2020), radical style (“The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion,” 2019), and the legendary Harlem home of Black music (“The Apollo,” 2019, which she produced). All of those subjects come together in her latest film, “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” an exuberant — and surprisingly poignant — portrait of the groundbreaking performer who gifted the world “Tutti Frutti.” Among those appearing in the film: Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, filmmaker John Waters, Emmy-Tony-Grammy-winning actor Billy Porter, and several scholars, among them an ethnographer, a theologian, and a musicologist.
After thrilling audiences at Sundance, the film screens on April 11 at select theaters nationwide (including Landmark Kendall Square), then becomes available to watch at home beginning April 21. Cortés will be in attendance for the Provincetown Film Society’s screening at 7 p.m. on April 15 at the Waters Edge Cinema. We spoke with her by phone earlier this month.
Q. You capture all the excitement of Little Richard and then some in this film. Wouldn’t you have loved for him to have seen it?
A. I would, especially because I used his voice to tell his story. I think one of the constant themes in his life was feeling not heard, being made invisible for his contributions. I feel he started so many things that have come to fruition and will continue to grow because of his being here and declaring himself in the way that he did. If you can’t bring the flowers when someone’s alive, hopefully you can plant a garden that shows all the different things that they brought to us.
Q. I’m not sure I knew the extent to which he talked openly about being queer. You seem to have found every occasion when he was open about his sexuality.
A. I love that this film for the audience is about discovery. We did a really deep dive to see if we could find his voice to narrate his cradle-to-grave story. I first encountered him not in the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll but later, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when he was on Tom Brokaw and Rona Barrett, and he became a little “one-note.” He became, at times, a condensed caricature. Unfortunately, when there’s this nostalgic embrace of you, that does not always allow you to be your complete self.
Q. Richard had an unusual career in that almost all of it was packed into the ‘50s. Is the timing as right as it could be for this film?
A. Yeah, the timing, for me and the type of work I’ve been doing, it’s really important. I love history, and I love showing how the stories from our past are still in conversation with the present. There are so many things that are thematically explored in the film in an organic way, because it’s who Richard was and how he presented himself to the world. Those are things that we as a culture are engaged in and, in some states, embattled about. Richard becomes a way to show what it means to be truly a transgressive figure.
Q. Is there a world in which someone who thinks they are opposed to folks who are gender-fluid might see the film and say “OK, I changed my mind”?
A. I always imagine a world in which the transformative power of art allows people to understand how beautifully human we all are, and that humanity comes with seemingly contradictory aspects. We are occupying many multiplicities through our very act of being.
Q. Your track record as a filmmaker, the things you’ve worked on — a more just democracy, fashion, the legacy of the Apollo Theater — all those subjects converge in Little Richard.
A. Little Richard’s story is an inflection point to talk about so many things. He declared agency for himself, and not just through saying he was an innovator, an architect. He did it through his music, through his fashion, through his pompadour. When you think of the time when he arrived on the scene in 1955, that’s the same year that Emmett Till was murdered. You have to stand back and say “Wow.”
Q. One thing about Richard’s music — people think he was this alien who dropped out of the sky. But you do a great job of contextualizing him, whether he’s talking about his love for Sister Rosetta Tharpe or his gospel upbringing, or even calling himself the “Bronze Liberace.”
A. It’s funny that you said some might think he’s an alien, because there wasn’t anybody like him. He was so in-your-face, so unapologetic, creating this music that was liberating and infectious. I told the editors I wanted to find a language that shows he is otherworldly. Supernatural. In the film, there’s a visual vocabulary that speaks to that elemental energy that he released, and we had a lot of fun incorporating that.
Q. Is there a specific song of his that you like best?
A. One song I said we had to get into the film and couldn’t find a way is “Keep A-Knockin’.” It’s a great song, and I think it’s a metaphor in many ways for his story. Like, he’s trying to be accepted, and he doesn’t feel that portal ever opens for him. And it’s a great example of how people paid homage to Richard. You know, the opening drums of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” are the drums from “Keep A-Knockin’.”
Q. In the film, Billy Porter is the guy planting the garden you mentioned earlier. He says, “Sometimes simply existing is a revolutionary act.” When that came out of his mouth, did a lightbulb go off for you?
A. As with so many of the contributors, everything that Billy said was a lightbulb moment. He recognizes that he could not be here as his full self without Little Richard laying the foundation. From the moment he opened up his mouth, he set great change in motion that continues to this day.
Interview was edited and condensed.
Email James Sullivan at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.