Streaming has ushered in a so-called golden age of music documentaries, foregrounding artists as legendary as the Beatles and as nascent as Billie Eilish. With the proliferation of any product, especially one with as many constraints as a non-fiction film, viewers have learned to anticipate certain beats and crowd-pleasing moments in these films. The new rockumentary Little Richard: I Am Everything is no exception, as it sets out—in entirely by-the-book fashion—to salute the ever-confounding “Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Directed by Lisa Cortés and co-produced by Dee Rees, the film at least attempts a unique mission, despite its conventional and chronological storytelling method. Like many Black and queer artists who shaped the rock ’n’ roll landscape in the 1950s and ’60s, Little Richard (whose real name was Richard Penniman) has not enjoyed the same visibility or deification as the many white acts he inspired—most notably English rock bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, the latter of whom turned his signature 1955 song “Tutti Frutti” into a global hit. In that way, the doc is an attempt to give one of rock ’n’ roll’s founding fathers—who died from bone cancer in 2020—his flowers. At once, it denounces an industry that wasn’t prepared to accept him while revealing a man who could never fully come to terms with himself.
One of the most fascinating parts of the doc is its exploration of Black Christianity. The role of the Black church is crucial in telling Little Richard’s story and the contradictions he embodied as a queer man who would go on to renounce his sexuality several times throughout his career. Like many legendary Black artists, he mastered his frenetic singing style as a choir boy before navigating the so-called “chitlin’ circuit” and even drag clubs. The Georgia native, whose father was a deacon, also learned his thunderous piano-playing in church.
In one of many talking-head interviews, sociologist Zandria Robinson frames the American South as culturally queer and nonnormative. Southern Baptist and Pentecostal churches, in particular, were—and still are—a space where Black people, overcome by the Holy Spirit, could behave outside of the lines of social decorum and respectability. That jubilance is reflected in Little Richard’s improvisational riffing and electrifying stage presence demonstrated throughout the film. One can draw a direct line from the hooting and hollering that soundtracks Black church services to the opening line of the famously filthy “Tutti Frutti.”
Of course, Little Richard’s lifestyle, once he became an adult performer, was anything but “godly.” An early portion of the doc is devoted to the evolution of “Tutti Frutti,” which morphed from a song about anal sex into a sanitized pop ditty (with some subliminal messaging) that strait-laced teens were rocking out to. In regards to his sexual proclivities—outside of his publicized pursuit of men—Little Richard was very much a rock ’n’ roll cliché. Likewise, the doc highlights the singer’s affinity for orgies and voyeurism, aided by an expensive drug habit.
Like some other teen sex symbols of that era, Little Richard also had a sexual relationship with an underage girl, Audrey Robinson (aka Lee Angel), who was 16 when she met the then-24-year-old. Their age gap isn’t acknowledged within the context of rock ’n’ roll’s groupie culture and teen audience. (Strangely enough, Richard’s own experiences being molested as a child are omitted as well.) In a brief interview, the now-deceased Robinson recounts their muse-artist dynamic with nothing but admiration for the musician.
Without discounting his bisexuality, the film frames Little Richard’s relationships with women—including his marriage to Ernestine Campbell—within the existential panic surrounding his queerness. This is one of I Am Everything’s most devastating and compelling aspects, as we watch the flamboyant rockstar denounce his homosexuality and dedicate his life to Christ soon after his introduction into the mainstream rock world. Later, in the 2000s, the “Good Golly Miss Molly” singer would condemn his sexuality again. Clips of the musician on televangelist programs, warning viewers of a forthcoming judgment day, are equally unsettling.
As we journey through Little Richard’s paradoxical career, the film takes on an increasingly melancholic tone, not just in regards to his internalized homophobia but his treatment within the larger musical landscape. The film features soundbites of white rock musicians, including Stones frontman Mick Jagger, singing his praises and citing him as an inspiration. Those obligatory shout-outs, however, were never enough for Richard, who throughout his life openly lamented his underappreciated status within the pantheon of rock legends.
A particularly sad moment comes when Little Richard was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 but couldn’t attend the ceremony due to injuries from a car accident. That gives way to one of the most interesting and humorous parts of the film, when he inducts Otis Redding into the Hall three years later, breaking into song and circling back to his own accomplishments throughout the speech. The chaotic presentation is funny, especially the shots of uncomfortable audience members, but beneath all the laughter and impromptu singing is a sense of pain and frustration about his complicated legacy.
It’s these moments of frankness—like when Richard exclaims in an Arsenio Hall interview, “I’m not conceited, I’m convinced”—that elevate the doc from a tedious history lesson into something greater. The singer’s candor and refreshing impoliteness makes you nostalgic for an earlier, pre-internet form of celebrity. Meanwhile, efforts to make the film contemporary—like CGI fairy dust, galactic images, and sequences of current artists performing his catalog—are ultimately less riveting than old interviews of Richard declaring his own greatness.
By the time I Am Everything ends, you’re left with a greater appreciation for the underrated rock titan and an overwhelming pity for his personal demons. The fact that the doc, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and earned rave reviews, is receiving just a one-day theatrical release today before it heads to digital feels like another slight. (It’s unclear when the film, which was co-produced by HBO Max, will land on the streamer.) However, it at least provides the sort of glorying tribute any musician would dream of. In this case, it’s better late than never.