Little Richard — music icon, legend, and the man behind hits like “Tutti Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” — inspired a generation. Despite his success, the filmmaker says there were points in his career where he “didn’t feel recognized”. Lisa Cortes.
His latest documentary, “Little Richard: I’m Everything‘, which hits theaters on April 21, aims to remind the next generation of its legacy.
Cortés says the documentary draws parallels with “.All in One: Struggle for DemocracyHe co-directed with Liz Garbus, in which he followed Stacy Abrams in his political campaign”. talk to Variation, “Both of these films talk about issues with political toggle buttons. There are states where black and queer history is under attack and they pass laws against teaching that history. We see these are very important parts of Richard’s origin story and rock ‘n’ roll.” “It’s a movie that’s still in conversation with many of the important things we’re facing right now,” he adds.
Cortés discussed why it’s important to tell his story over Zoom and why the film should serve as a storyteller.
“I am an innovator. I am creative. I am liberator. I’m the architect of rock ‘n’ roll!” Why start there?
As the kids say, “I pissed all over here.” He marks his territory and does not feel recognised. His pivotal role as part of rock ‘n’ roll history has been erased.
Most people don’t self-proclaim as boldly as Richard, but that’s what made him such an attractive character, because he declared himself for something he had the right to declare himself.
What made you want to tell this story? Why him?
Richard is multi-layered. Music, fashion and makeup. He was also an extreme figure who shifted the energy of culture and whose ripple effects are still visible today.
Richard has also provided a platform for many artists and mentored many. He took Billy Preston, a young keyboard player, to England and introduced him to the Beatles. Billy later became known as the Fifth Beatle.
James Brown—Little Richard brings him to Macon, Ga, where James records his first hit. This is where James recorded his first hits. There are many layers to looking at his contributions and then questioning what we don’t know about him.
Who were the voices that were important to you in telling this story?
The first voice I had to give the microphone was Richard, and I gave him the agency to tell his story through archival materials. But Richard wasn’t the most reliable narrator, and so there are friends, family, and academics who question things.
Richard mentions his ex-girlfriend, Lee Angel, at one point. He tells her how much he loves sex and how he is a songbird, and Lee responds by saying, “He says I’ve been doing things I don’t remember doing.”
I love that we can chat with him and tell him if there’s a little embellishment about what we, as viewers, are curious about.
In terms of archival footage, what about old things?
We did a very deep dive at the beginning of the movie to find Richard’s voice and ensure he could tell the story over the years.
We got a lot of material from the BBC and their archive was amazing. Other shots we had to clean up in post production and we might have boosted the color a bit over the coral jumpsuit, but overall, the film quality was pretty much intact.
What did you learn about him as you perused those archives and sat with the subjects?
I learned that he is not this monolithic comic foil that says “Shut up” or calls himself “Bronze Liberace”. He was more than someone who sang “Rubber Ducky” on “Sesame Street.”
It was someone who experienced this truly crazy roller coaster ride. He was torn between being a sinner and being a rock ‘n’ roll star, and I think that pushed the expression in his music in many ways. There was a tremendous erasure as we positioned him as one of the architects of rock ‘n’ roll, one of America’s biggest exports.
What did you learn from exploring religion and its relationship to rock ‘n’ roll?
When you think of contemporary church-goers like Sam Cooke or even Marvin Gaye who have had a hard time making popular music, they didn’t hesitate, like Richard. Richard is at the peak of his fame in the late 50s. Literally throws it all away. She throws away her jewels and cuts her hair. He goes to Bible college and studied at a seminary. But then there’s the rock ‘n’ roll call, and that pulls it back. It lures him to Europe and suddenly he’s back.
And then, there’s a period when the Bible sells. So, it has these extremes of the sacred and the mundane, and on this pendulum it goes from ‘I’m on the cusp of fame’ to ‘I’m messing things up’. It has some hot sauce in it. He was devoted to his work and was fully entrenched in that world, but then he left.
Now what does it mean to tell his story and introduce his music to a generation and show what impact he has had on the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and more?
This is your opportunity to show the family tree of rock ‘n’ roll. Richard has a very legitimate place in the infrastructure he occupies. We are the recipient of a lot of things from Richard to show that, to show the importance of being Black and queer in this space, and to recognize it. But it’s also to see how common this all is with contemporary artists if you’re not a musician, how one’s audacity, self-invention, and rebelliousness can change so much. Interspersed with all of us is a piece of his DNA.