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The Crack Magazine

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Little Richard: I Am Everything

Director: Lisa Cortés

This illuminating rockumentary about the architect of rock and roll Little Richard investigates his struggle with his faith and sexuality as well as the liberating effect he had on subsequent artists and the broader culture. It’s at its most fascinating in its account of how Richard Wayne Penniman, the boy from Macon County, rejected by his father because of his sexuality, finds his voice and his distinctively flamboyant look while touring the Chitlin’ Circuit, which provided safe spaces for African-American artists to perform in the Jim Crow-era US and allowed for a certain gender fluidity. These passages include some memorable thumbnail sketches of such figures as Billy Wright, whose pompadour hair and pencil-thin moustache clearly influenced Richard’s look and whose gayness was an open secret on the circuit, and the dandyish R&B singer Esquerita. The concert footage is electric but will be familiar to fans, while Cortés illustrates breakthrough and seismic impact via cheeky images of the big bang and volcanoes erupting. We do learn that ‘Tutti Frutti’ was about anal sex before it was cleaned up, and that when glamorous exotic dancer Lee Angel was told that Richard wanted to meet her, she responded ‘Does he know I’m a girl?’ Richard also apparently minted the phrase ‘shut up’ as a cheeky retort. After he witnessed a fireball in the sky, which may or may not have been Sputnik, Richard turned to God, and subsequent TV clips of him renouncing the gay community make for a troubling watch. Equally uncomfortable is a sequence where an embittered Richard, feeling, albeit correctly, that his influence has not been sufficiently acknowledged, launches into a tirade at Otis Redding’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to a squirming crowd of celebs. Mick Jagger, Tom Jones and Paul McCartney weigh in, but it’s director John Waters, Trans dancer and activist Sir Lady Java, and journalist and academic Jason King who provide the best insights. As King astutely points out about Richard, ‘He was good at liberating other people, not so good at liberating himself’.

David Willoughby

Follow David on @DWill_Crackfilm