Sundance 2023 Review: Little Richard: I Am Everything
The architect of rock & roll gets his flowers in new documentary
By Richard Whittaker,
5:00PM, Tue. Jan. 24, 2023
How did Richard Penniman, the third of 12 children born to a preacher/bootlegger in Macon, Georgia at the height of segregation, become one of the first rock & roll stars? That's the question asked and somewhat answered by Little Richard: I Am Everything.
Writing a history of rock & roll without a long chapter on Little Richard would be heresy, and this CNN production (acquired by Magnolia Pictures after its Sundance Film Festival premiere) does everything it can to remind the music world that he was a lot more than the guy that wrote "Tutti Frutti." This was the man who snuck Black queer culture into the mainstream (read: white) media, a wellspring of flamboyance, an inspiration and mentor to everyone from Jimi Hendrix to the Beatles.
Yet Little Richard: I Am Everything is caught somewhere between a standard modern rock bio doc and what can only refer to as the first post-Moonage Daydream flick, with a certain visual flair that, sadly, cannot match up with Bret Morgan's vibrant history of David Bowie. And that's disappointing, because if anyone deserves that kind of grand scale insight with that level of visual rulebreaking then it's probably Little Richard. Worse, those moments end up feeling intrusive and somewhat self-serving, such as inserts of modern musicians doing cover versions, surrounded by CGI magic dust.
Those fantastical efforts get in the way of the exploration the psychology of Little Richard, and I Am Everything is most fascinating when it goes deep into his formative years, and the influences of truly obscure figures like Escuerita and Billy Wright (both Black queer musicians). Yet the further into his life the documentary goes, the less insightful it becomes.
Where it works best is as a tick tock history of his life and career, putting into context how he made the jump from the Chitlin' Circuit to the hit parade and Vegas runs. His ubiquity in the early days of rock & roll and his influence is undeniable, as sections on important eras like his first UK tour describe and his recurrent resurgences all tell a fascinating story in their own right.
Yet the drama of I Am Everything is predicated on the idea that the music industry was all in on a concerted effort to erase Little Richard's influence, impact, and importance. For example, bar a quick mention of his early induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it presents his American Music Award of Merit in 1997 as his first major plaudit. That erases earlier praise, like his 1993 Lifetime Achievement Grammy (the Grammys instead being presented as the enemy), and could have been probed without the weird and unnecessary potshots at figures as diverse as Alan Freed and Fats Domino. Worse, it reduces the barriers in his way to faceless "thems."
Moreover, that accelerated timeline also gets in the way of any real analysis of his own self-destructive tendencies and the bitterness that swallowed him up in his later years. It glosses over how he constantly fled "the Devil's music" and then came back whenever preaching the Gospel didn't pay the bills. Similar recent documentaries about seminal figures in the birth of rock & roll, like The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley: The Searcher, found far more space to explore the complexities of their subjects and, as a result, ended up less hagiographic.
Maybe the problem is that Little Richard was always at war with himself, the devout believer raised in the Southern evangelical traditions who was also a queer peacock. His life ricocheted between outrageous shirtless performances and publicly denouncing his own experiences as a queer Black man as he embraced his Gospel tendencies (so separate are these sides of himself that he even sang in different registers). Maybe he was always impossible to understand except as contradictions, but it's also impossible to not feel that Little Richard: I Am Everything should have found a way to find something more meaningful than it is descriptive.
The 2023 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 19-29. Info and online passes at festival.sundance.org.