February 8, 2023

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‘Little Richard: I’m Everything’ Review: Rock’s Transgressive King

7 min read

One of the paradoxes of the great early rock ‘n’ rollers is that they possessed a cathartic sexuality and bomb-away rockabilly-on-pep-pills energy unlike anything we’d ever seen, yet their revolution shook the world so profoundly that within a few years It was hard to imagine what the world was like before them. If you come along (as I did) after that earthquake, their enthusiasm no longer looks shocking; It looked old fashioned. When I was growing up, everything about Elvis Presley, including his hip-swiveling erotic brashness, seemed impossibly weird. For the most part, it took years to see past the wild times I was living in and be able to connect with the anarchic spirit of early rock ‘n’ roll.

But Little Richard was always another story. If Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis were wild-ass country boys, teasing their audience with smiles of criminal depravity, Little Richard was even more deranged and explosive – a complete stoner freak, and a musical fireball of such crazy vibes that you could feel it. A city can light up. His voice sounded like a saxophone in full cry. Its tenacity and blare were almost superhuman, and you could make a case that the single most exhilarating sound in rock ‘n’ roll history was the high notes he would hit and hold with his micro vibrato. Those joyous notes echoed through the songs of Paul McCartney and thousands of others.

It certainly didn’t stop there. Little Richard had an image that was sufficiently off-the-hook to match the awkwardness of his voice. The pompadour that stood up as if electricity had emanated from his body right through it, the super-skinny mustache that paired with his pearly smile (which was like a parody of a smile), the face flecked with pancake makeup, and those androgynous Liz Taylor eyes, crazy. Unleashed in frenzy — he was like the Joker reincarnated as a diabolical rock ‘n’ roll ringmaster. When Little Richard rips into a song like “Tutti Frutti” or “The Girl Can’t Help It” or “Rip It Up” or “Lucille,” he just doesn’t feel the heat. he was the light. And he enlightened anyone watching.

“Little Richard: I Am Everything,” directed with the utmost love and insight by Lisa Cortes, is the captivating documentary that Little Richard deserves. It’s a movie that understands, from the inside, what a great and transgressive artist he was, how his stardom channeled the full force of the astonishing brilliance of culture — but the astonishingly radical nature of what he did, almost from the moment. , the official narrative of rock ‘n’ roll has been pushed down In a sense, you can say: really? Didn’t Little Richard, as we think of him, find a place as one of the original heads on Mount Rushmore of the early rock?

Yes and no. He became a star, a legend, a walking myth of formative rock glory. But as “Little Richard: I’m Everything” argues, and quite convincingly, the qualities that Little Richard brought to rock ‘n’ roll — where those qualities came from and what they mean — have been consistently undervalued. He was, in a certain way, considered an “outrageous” novelty act, a brilliantly eccentric companion to the debonair dynamo next door to Elvis Presley. “I am everything” that holds the light and invites us to contemplate with a new and clear-eyed understanding, everything is Little Richard. invented. Not because he had a grand plan, but because he was a black man who, in the mid-1950s, made the brave and genius decision to take what was inside him and wear it on the outside. He was going to do it all Turn around.

“Tutti Frutti”, as “I am Everything” documents, was first sung by Richard as a song about anal sex. (Original lyrics: “Tutti frutti, good booty,/If it doesn’t fit, don’t force it,/You can grease, make it easy…”). The lyrics, of course, changed to something more presentable, and you could say that whatever “Tutti Frutti” was about, its most important lyric was “A-oop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-loop-bam- BOOM!” But to say that is to misunderstand the mystery of how art works. The joyous, rebellious, world-shattering exuberance of “Tutti Frutti,” which Cortes channels in a dazzling psychedelic montage, was still in Little Richard’s imagination. You can tell. That she was flaunting her own lust in a straight guise.

“I Am Everything” celebrates Little Richard whose megalomaniacal arrogance was to be expected – and in some ways set the tone for Muhammad Ali’s volcanic pride. The film opens on the soundtrack with Richard saying, “I am the liberator and the architect! I started it all!” Does he mean rock ‘n’ roll? We hear Billy Porter announce Little Richard was Elvis. Because Richard was the one who lit the flame (even if Elvis, by and large, turned it into a wildfire). But I also think that Little Richard’s I-am-everything advice is about something bigger than rock ‘n’ roll. Her stylized and sexually fluid appearance, combined With rock’s initial push, Elvis and Jerry Lee opened a door they didn’t — the door to everything that happened in the ’70s and beyond, from glam rock to Led Zeppelin to Elton John’s glitzy splendor to the erotic innocence of Lil Nas X’s lyricism. Prince’s on the edge. Richard, more powerful than anyone, was announcing a new way.

We see how quickly he was co-opted. Here’s Elvis singing “Tutti Frutti” and here, on TV in the ’50s, is Pat Boone doing a version of “Tutti Frutti” that’s wholesome enough to play in Sunday school. The system wasn’t just stealing from Little Richard—it was neutering him. And Richard, the showman-artist who had to sit back and watch this happen, had his own complicated relationship with everything about himself that was dangerous.

Born Richard Penniman, he grew up in Macon, Georgia, one of 12 children; In the first image we see of him, he already has a smile that looks… ironic. One of her arms and legs was shorter than the others, and she resorted to playing the piano and reveling in the cathartic music of Sister Rosetta Tharp, who not only belted out the gospel; He plays the electric guitar like a rock star. (He hired Richard to open for him, which was his first gig.) But Richard’s father, when he realized that Richard was gay, kicked him out of the house.

Richard played in rhythm and blues bands, sometimes in drag, and was greatly influenced by singer Billy Wright, from whom he borrowed the pompadour, makeup, and moustache. (Wright, too, was gay.) But the look would have meant little had Richard not invested it with his own happy demons. He was also influenced by Ike Turner, whose piano playing on the 1951 single “Rocket 88,” considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record, set the template for what Richard did with his right hand — The Choppy Lightning. Improv, playing a boogie-woogie bass, was nothing less than the sound of freedom.

Lisa Cortes weaves one dazzling clip after another, so that Richard’s majesty on stage and in the recording studio hits us like a tornado. But he also tells the story of what an angry man he was. We see clips of him talking about how he reveled in the rock-star life: the drugs, the fraud, the outrageous excesses of fame. But he says he always had a Bible in the other hand. He was immersed in the church, and his guilt—not just about the sin he thought he was living, but the rampant sin he channeled into his art—overwhelmed him.

So he ricocheted back and forth. By 1957, most of the songs he would become famous for had already been released, and he enrolled at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, to study theology. He wanted to go straight in every way. She made a gospel album, in which she sounded like a completely different singer (more Perry Como than Sister Rosetta), and she married Ernestine Harvin, a secretary in Washington, DC.

In a sense, you could say that Richard masterminded his own conversion therapy. And, of course, it didn’t take. The original Little Richard continues to explode; Rock ‘n’ roll was the siren song that kept calling him. But he didn’t just crave music, or glamor. He wanted her the rest. This meant that he never received royalties (although it didn’t help that he walked out of his contract in 1957), but it really meant that he wanted to be recognized as the truly wild godfather of rock ‘n’ roll. Not just because of his famous arrogance, but because he saw how essential it was to the story of America’s racial and sexual politics. With Richard employed as a kind of high-camp mascot, it is black culture itself, and queer culture, that is denied.

Richard knew the Beatles before they were famous, spent time with them in Hamburg, and they, who idolized him, gave back what they could. He continued to tour in 1966 in full glitter-glam (he had a suit that was essentially a mirrored disco ball), and he did the talk-show circuit, where he proved a charmingly funny master of self-presentation as performance art. He sings “Shut up!” popularized the term.

But Little Richard was fighting for something deeper. “I Am Everything,” in addition to eloquent testimonials from Billy Porter, John Waters, Nile Rodgers and others, includes the kind of pointed commentary from cultural critics that many of today’s music documentaries omit. Distinctive scholars Jandria Robinson and Jason King offer rich insights, such as King’s observation that Richard “was good at setting other people free by his example. He wasn’t good at freeing himself.” Many transgressive artists are like that. Yet Little Richard worked hard to crack open concepts and earn his rightful place in history, and “I’m Everything” seems to be the culmination of this. This enjoyable and necessary documentary means watching. He had a talent that no one could contain.

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