Saturday, September 02, 2023

Little Richard: I Am Everything, on CNN

He truly was the “architect of rock & roll.” Richard Wayne Penniman was rocking before Elvis and at one point he had Jimi Hendrix in his band. His shows had more energy than Springsteen’s and more flamboyance than Elton John’s. Actually, his flamboyance is a major focus of Lisa Cortes’ documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything, which airs Monday on CNN.

Penniman was the third son out of twelve children for his father, a Pentecostal deacon and bootlegger, who often took issue with the future rocker, because he was small, sensitive, and gay. That last part is maybe a little more complicated, but not to his dad. Of course, Penniman could sing, starting in the Church and then on the chitlin circuit (which sometimes included drag performances).

While giving a rough chronology of Little Richard’s life and career, Cortes’ central theme is the tension between his sexuality and his Evangelical Christianity. She also interviews his longtime off-and-on girlfriend Lee Angel at length, which is where some of those complications come in. Yet, there is no mention of his classic supporting turn in
Down and Out in Beverly Hills, which contributed considerably to his 1980s comeback (the soundtrack also featured one of his final hits, “Great Gosh A’Mighty”). On the plus side, the coverage of Little Richard’s gospel period is pretty solid.

Maybe his identity issues will mean a lot to some people, but his fans would probably rather hear more about his music. Little Richard is a legend, so it is nice to get some sense of his personality. Even today, his wicked sense of humor still often plays like knowingly outrageous performance art. Yet, he is still entitled to some privacy, even posthumously, which is why Cortes’ obsessive interest in his romantic life and sexual pursuits sometime feels excessive and intrusive, especially when there is so little song-by-song discussion of his recorded output.

It is also rewarding to see Little Richard finally get his due as one of the primary fathers of rock & roll, along with fellow legends, like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. However, Cortes often assumes viewers are stuck in the early 1960s. Is there anyone left in America who doesn’t understand how rock & roll evolved out of Black musical forms, like R&B and jump blues? If you randomly stop people on the street, who do you think they will more likely be familiar with, Little Richard or Pat Boone? Yet, the weird part is how easily the film more-or-less accepts the way record labels swindled him out of royalties. These kinds of sharp practices would never fly for book publishers, so why has the recording industry gotten away with it for so long?

I Am Everything definitely reminds us what an energetic entertainer he was. It also inspires nostalgic memories of then 1980s, when Little Richard often appeared on television. He was high-energy guest, even when he was couch-sitting on a late-night talk show. As a music doc, it is okay, but it should have been better. Recommended for Little Richard fans, particularly the gossipy ones, Little Richard: I Am Everything airs Monday (9/4) on CNN.