Lisa Cortes’ documentary “Little Richard: I’m Everything” examines the man behind the hit song, big hair and bright personality. The 98-minute doc, which premiered Jan. 19 at Sundance, tells the story of Richard Penniman, also known as Little Richard, in 1930s Macon, Ga. From underground black drag clubs to individual concert halls and tracing a path to international fame. Little Richard, who died in 2020 aged 87, burst onto the music scene in the 1950s and eventually transitioned into rock ‘n’ roll. “His DNA is everywhere,” said Cortes, who used never-before-seen archival footage along with interviews with family, colleagues, musicians and historians to tell Little Richard’s story. The doc is the first nonfiction feature Cortes has directed himself. (In 2020 he co-directed “All In: The Fight for Democracy” with Liz Garbus.) For more than two decades, Cortes has worked as a producer on narratives as well as docs, including “Precious,” “The Woodsman,” and most recently the doc “Invisible Beauty”, which is premiering at Sundance. “Little Richard: I Am Everything” is one of the latest documentaries commissioned by CNN Films. Despite the death of the production companies in 2022, the film will premiere on CNN and stream on HBO Max later this year.
What appeals to you about the story of Little Richard?
I was particularly interested in looking at Richard, the icon, and his contribution to music, but also as a transgressive figure in culture. And then additionally there was this man who was born in the segregated South, who defied many rules and at the same time there was an internal war going on between the secular and the profane. So, when you look at all those layers to interrogate, as a filmmaker, it lends itself in many ways to get into the story.
In the film’s production notes, you said that her story and her struggle are more important than ever. Why?
Rock ‘n’ roll, race and queerness are core to our culture, but also to our culture wars. I think there are a lot of things we’re still dealing with that Richard approached and challenged. The gender fluidity that Richard displayed is not new, and it was not new then. It just wasn’t said, and it wasn’t relevant. But it turns out that some people in our contemporary culture still aren’t comfortable with that.
Does the scripted content you work on share anything with the docs you work on?
Connective tissue is that I’m interested in hidden statistics. I’m interested in people you think you know based on their outward appearance. As a filmmaker, I am committed to showing complexity, richness and value [behind that appearance] Be it an organization like Apollo or an individual like Richard.
You worked closely with CNN Films to produce this doc. What do you do dismantling the company?
It is a great loss. I had the most amazing experience working with them. They are such incredible allies. I welcome filling that void because it is necessary.