Review: ‘Little Richard: I Am Everything,’ starring Little Richard

January 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

Little Richard in “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Little Richard: I Am Everything”

Directed by Lisa Cortés

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” a group of African American and white people discuss the impact of rock and roll pioneer Little Richard, who died in 2020, at the age of 87.

Culture Clash: Little Richard experienced homophobia, racism, cultural appropriation, drug addiction and showbiz ripoffs during his many ups and downs. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of fans of Little Richard, “Little Richard: I Am Everything” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries music legends who influenced countless entertainers.

Little Richard in “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” vibrantly captures the spirit of rock music pioneer Little Richard and doesn’t shy away from exploring his many contradictions. The documentary stumbles by adding sparkly visual effects to make him look “magical,” but these corny embellishments don’t ruin the movie. “Little Richard: I Am Everything” can at least be applauded for not sticking to an entirely predictable format, since the movie does a few other things in its effort to not be a typical biographical documentary.

Directed by Lisa Cortés, “Little Richard: I Am Everything” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary unfolds in chronological order and has an expected mixture of archival footage of Little Richard (who died in 2020, at the age of 87) and exclusive documentary interviews with family members, associates, celebrity admirers and various culture experts. People don’t have to be fans of rock music to know that Little Richard was one of the originators of the genre. However, may people who are unfamiliar with him as an artist might be surprised by how his life went from one extreme to the other, often by his own doing.

People knowledgeable about rock history will also know already that Little Richard—just like other African American artists who were pioneers in rock music—was frequently ripped off creatively and financially. He was never fully appreciated by the industry when he was in the prime of his career. It was only after he loudly complained for years about not getting the recognition he deserved that he started to receive many industry accolades.

For example, Little Richard never won a Grammy Award in a competitive category (the Grammys Awards were launched in 1960, after Little Richard’s hitmaking career peaked), but he did receive a non-competitive Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1993, long after he stopped making hit records. He was in the first group of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame in 1986, but he couldn’t attend the ceremony because he had the bad luck of being seriously injured in a car accident. (He fell asleep behind the wheel.)

Born in Macon, Georgia, in 1932, Richard Wayne Penniman (Little Richard’s birth name) knew from an early age that he wanted to be a flamboyant entertainer, beginning when he used to dressing up in his mother’s clothes when he was a child. Little Richard, who grew up in a strict Christian household, was the third-youngest of 12 children. His mother Leva Mae Penniman accepted him for who he was, but his Charles “Bud” Penniman would brutally abuse Richard for being effeminate.

Bud Penniman was also a study in contradictions: He was church deacon and a brick mason, but he was also a bootlegger who owned a small nightclub and a house where he sold alcoholic drinks, which were illegal at the time. Ralph Harper, a former neighbor of the Penniman family, has this memory of Little Richard: “He was always banging on the piano, anytime you see him.”

Muriel Jackson, head of the Middle Georgia Archives, comments on Macon’s culture: “Macon is known for its churches. It’s a conservative, religious town.” Therefore, Little Richard wasn’t just bullied at home for being who he was. He also got a lot of abuse from other people in the community.

Specialty Records historian Billy Vera says, “They called him a sissy, a punk” and much worse. Emmy-winning and Tony-winning entertainer Billy Porter (who is openly gay) adds, “I can only imagine. I’ve lived a version of that. It’s debilitating. It’s soul-crushing. And it can be deadly.”

Little Richard spent the early years of his entertainment career in that vortex of contradictions: He would play the piano or sing in the choir in the stern atmosphere of conservative church gatherings, but he would also perform in the much-less restrictive (and taboo at the time) gay-friendly nightclubs in Macon and later Atlanta. He would often appear in drag at these shows under the stage name Princess LaVonne. In those days, it was illegal for men to go in public in drag, unless they it was part of an entertainment act.

One of his frequent hang-outs was Ann’s Tic Toc in Macon. And as a teenager, Little Richard worked at the Macon City Auditorium, where it made a huge impact on him to see many artists up close and backstage. The documentary mentions that when Little Richard saw his idol Sister Rosetta Tharpe (a guitar-playing vanguard in rock music) do a concert at the Macon City Auditorium in 1945, it changed his life. His piano-playing style was influenced by how Ike Turner played piano on Jackie Brenston’s 1957 song “Rocket 88.”

Little Richard was influential to countless artists, but there were people who influenced him on his artistic image/persona. In addition to Tharp, another performer who helped shape Little Richard’s entertainment style was an openly gay drag performer named Billy Wright, who met Little Richard at the Gold Peacock nightclub in Atlanta in 1950, and they eventually became close friends. Wright had a pompadour hairstyle, wore heavy makeup, and had a thin moustache, which all eventually became signature looks for Little Richard. Did Little Richard copy Wright? Not really, as scholar Zandria Robinson explains: “They were kind of like mirrors that come into your life and show you who you really are.

In the early 1950s, black artists were limited to performing R&B, blues, jazz and gospel. The documentary mentions that when Little Richard was looking for a record deal, he didn’t quite fit in with any of these music genres, even though he was repeatedly told that he should perform blues, according to his longtime drummer Charles Connor. Instead, Little Richard was part of a small but growing number of black artist pioneering a new form of music that combined blues and R&B and made it more energetic, raucous and sexually frank. At first, this new form of music was called “race music” (to indicate that it was performed by black artists) but eventually became known as rock and roll.

Little Richard signed a deal with Signature Records. And his music as a rock artist eventually became hits not just on the R&B charts, but made their way to crossover into the pop charts. It’s mentioned that cars being made with radios had a big impact on people, especially the young people who tended to be rock fans, being able to listen to rock music away from their parents at home. It was during the 1950s that Little Richard had his biggest and most famous hits, including “Tutti Frutti” (a song that he later admitted was about anal sex, but he changed the lyrics before recording it), “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “Lucille.”

His stage act became known for his “let it all hang out” style of banging on the piano (often with a leg propped up on the piano) with passionate sexual energy that wasn’t often seen in piano players at the time. Little Richard was sexually ambiguous at a time when it was very dangerous for performers, especially male performers, to be sexually ambiguous. It’s noted in the documentary that Little Richard’s father eventually came to accept him after Richard became a local star in the Georgia music scene. Tragically, Bud Penniman was shot to death in 1952, outside his Tip In Inn nightclub. No suspect was ever charged with this murder, but Little Richard said for years that the culprit was Frank Tanner, who was Little Richard’s best friend at the time.

By 1956, Little Richard had moved to Los Angeles and brought many of his siblings with him. Several people in the documentary talk about how generous he was with family, friends and associates. Throughout it all, Little Richard’s mother was one of his biggest fans. Little Ricard’s longtime drag-queen friend Sir Lady Java (an activist/entrepreneur) says in the documentary about Leva Mae Penniman: “She was such a beautiful person. She knew who he was and what he was. And she loved him in spite of it.”

Tom Jones says in the documentary that out of the five artists who are considered the first megastars of rock and roll—Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis—”Little Richard was the strongest.” By the early 1960s, Little Richard was usually named as one of the biggest influences of a slew of British artists who were making their mark in rock and roll. The Beatles (who hung out with Little Richard in the band’s pre-fame nightclub stint in Liverpool, England, and in Hamburg Germany) and the Rolling Stones jumped at the chance to perform on the same bill with Little Richard.

Robinson says that Little Richard’s upbringing in the South both tormented him and was inherent to who he was: “The South is the home of all things queer, of the different, of the non-normative, of the other side of gothic, of the grotesque. Note that queerness is not just about sexuality but about a presence and a space that is different from what we require or expect.” In other words, it doesn’t mean that queerness is more likely to be found in the South but that during Little Richard’s youth, the issues of race, social class and sexuality were more dangerous for people in certain parts of the South, such as his hometown of Macon, than in other parts of the United States.

After he became famous, Richard would change the descriptions of his sexual identity many times. Sometimes, he identified as gay. Sometimes, he identified as straight, during the periods of time when he became a born-again Christian who renounced any sexual identity that wasn’t heterosexual. Sometimes, he identified as bisexual or queer. Regardless of what his sexual identity was or was perceived to be, Little Richard could not be reasonably confused with any other entertainer because he had such a strong and distinct persona.

Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger, who says Little Richard was one of his biggest influences, comments on Little Richard’s persona: “It was almost like having a split personality.” The Rolling Stones were the opening act for Little Richard at the beginning of the British band’s career in the early 1960s. Jagger said he used that opportunity to study Little Richard’s onstage persona: “I would be at the side of the stage to watch him. Richard would work that audience.” Jagger, who started his career with a performing style of standing still a lot on stage, changed that style and took on some of the same techniques that Little Richard used, and which Jagger still uses today.

Tony Newman, drummer of the British band Sounds Incorporated, has fond memories of working as a backup musician for Little Richard, whom he met in London in 1962. “Nearly every night,” Newman says, “it escalated into a full-blown riot in the theater. I remember coming off of that and thinking, ‘Now this is tock and roll!”

A great deal of the documentary repeats information that music historians already know but other people might not know about how much white artists and music companies owned by white people benefited and often ripped off the work of innovative black artists such as Little Richard. Elvis Presley and Pat Boone were two of the white artists who’ve famously done cover versions of Little Richard songs. The documentary points out that while Presley often acknowledged Little Richard for being an influence that was crucial to Presley’s success (Presley publicly called Little Richard the “real king of rock and roll”), Boone was not as gracious in admitting how much Boone was profiting off of music originally made by black artists such as Little Richard. In most cases, white artists got more money and recognition for performing songs originally performed by black artists.

This documentary didn’t have to do any real investigating to reveal any big secrets about Little Richard when it came to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, because Little Richard told secrets about himself years ago in numerous interviews. The documentary includes clips of TV and radio interviews where he openly talks about indulging in sex orgies and experiencing drug addiction in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. He also participated in Charles White’s 1984 nonfiction tell-all book “The Life and Times of Little Richard,” which had a lot of details of Little Richard’s decadent lifestyle. The only viewers of this documentary who might be surprised by all this information are people who don’t know much about Little Richard.

As hedonistic as he admittedly was, there were periods of time in his life when he denounced his “sinful” lifestyle and became a religious fanatic who gave up rock music to perform gospel music. In the late 1950s, he attended Oakwood College, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Huntsville, Alabama. These born-again Christian phases in his life often included Little Richard claiming that he was drug-free and no longer condoning of non-heterosexuality. This self-shame about his sexuality seemed to come and go in Little Richard’s life, which made him someone who was unpredictable and difficult for many people to figure out.

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” includes interviews with Lee Angel, who famously told the world decades ago that Little Richard seduced her in 1955, when she was 16 years old, and asked her to marry him, but she said no. In the documentary, Angel says she’s not convinced that Little Richard was ever 100% gay. “He slept with me, and I’m all woman,” she declares proudly, although she admits she was initially surprised that he was sexually attracted to her because she thought he was more sexually interested in men. (Angel passed away in 2022.)

During one of his born-again Christian phases, Little Richard married Ernestine Harvin, (also known as Ernestine Campbell) in 1959. They divorced in 1964. Harvin is interviewed in the documentary (audio only, not on camera) and says of her marriage to Little Richard: “Richard was the kind of husband most woman would want: always positive, loving and caring.” Was Little Richard sexually confused? As scholar Jason King sees it: “He was very good at liberating other people through example. He was not good a liberating himself.”

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” also includes some mention of Little Richard’s battles and complaints about being cheated out of royalties due to signing bad recording contracts. Music attorney John Branca says that a lot of these legal issues had to do with Little Richard breaching his contracts during the periods of time when he refused to perform rock music and only wanted to do gospel. Regardless of how much money or how little money Little Richard made from record sales or songwriting royalties, he still managed to be a popular live act and would tour regularly until the later stages in his life.

One of the ways that “Little Richard: I Am Everything” tries to be different from the usual music documentary is by having artists who aren’t very famous do performances of songs that helped influence or define Little Richard. Valerie June performs Tharpe’s “Strange Things Are Happening Every Day” in the segment that talks about Tharpe. Cory henry recreates Little Richard’s performance of “Tutti Frutti” at the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans. John P. Kee performs “Standing in the Need” during the segment talking about one of Little Richard’s gospel music phases.

During these performances and in some footage of Little Richard, the documentary has visual effects of glowing dust that floats through the air, as if it’s some kind of magical aura from Little Richard that’s being passed though the ether. It’s not as cringeworthy as sparkling vampires in the “Twilight” movies, but it looks very over-the-top and quite unnecessary. Little Richard did not lead a fairytale life. There’s no need to conjure up images that he spread some kind of mystical dust, as if he’s a character some kind of Disney animated movie. The fascinating stories told about Little Richard by himself and other people are more than enough to be intriguing.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include his cousins Newt Collier and Stanley Stewart; Little Richard’s former manager Ramon Hervey; filmmaker John Waters; ethnomusicologist Gredara Hadley; entertainment agent Libby Anthony; singer Nona Hendryx; historian Tavia Nyong’o; former Oakwood College classmate Dewitt Williams; former Little Richard road manager Keith Winslow, whose other was a teacher at Oakwood College; bass player Charles Glenn, who was in Little Richard’s band; booking agent Morris Roberts; and producer/songwriter Nile Rodgers, who says that David Bowie wanted Bowie’s 1983’s smash hit “Let’s Dance” album (which Rodgers produced) to be heavily influenced by Little Richard. The documentary could have used more interviews with female musicians other than Hendryx, but it’s an overall diverse mix of people.

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” keeps the storytelling lively, thanks to some great editing by Nyneve Laura Minnear and Jake Hostetter. There’s a particularly powerful montage near the end of the film that juxtaposes archival footage of Little Richard and all the artists who have been directly or indirectly influenced by him over the years, including Elton John, Bowie, Jagger, Prince, Lady Gaga, Lizzo, former “Pose” star Porter and Harry Styles. “Little Richard: I Am Everything” is a perfect title for this movie, because it shows how Little Richard was at times (often to a fault) all things to many people. However conflicted he might have been in his personal life and career, this documentary eloquently demonstrates how Little Richard represents the glory and pain of expressing yourself freely, no matter what the consequences.

CNN will premiere “Little Richard: I Am Everything” on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story,’ starring George Wein, Quint Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Irma Thomas, Jimmy Buffett and Bruce Springsteen

May 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire in “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” (Photo courtesy of The Kennedy/Marshall Company and Sony Pictures Classics)

“Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story”

Directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the documentary “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” features a cast of white and black people (with a few Latinos), mostly music artists, who are connected in some way to Jazz Fest, an annual music and cultural festival in New Orleans.

Culture Clash: Jazz Fest has had its share of obstacles, including overcoming racial segregation issues, Hurricane Katrina and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Culture Audience: “Jazz Fest” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in this festival and its impact on New Orleans and pop culture.

Nashville Super Choir in “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” (Photo courtesy of The Kennedy/Marshall Company and Sony Pictures Classics)

“Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” is a purely laudatory documentary, told mostly from artists’ perspectives. The film is sometimes unfocused, and some of the commentary praise is too effusive, but the dynamic concert scenes make the movie a worthwhile watch. The movie capably demonstrates how Jazz Fest has become a necessary and influential cultural institution in New Orleans.

Directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern, “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” does nothing groundbreaking in how the film is presented. It’s a traditionally formatted documentary that blends archival footage with the movie’s exclusive interviews. “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” does an excellent job of showing the diversity of Jazz Fest, the commonly used name for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Despite its name, this beloved event isn’t just a festival for jazz music. Jazz Fest—an outdoor festival which traditionally takes place in the spring at Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots—also features R&B, rock, pop, country, gospel, blues, Latin music, Americana, world music, and a number of other music genres from numerous artists from around the world. Jazz Fest, which launched in 1970, is owned by the non-profit New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Foundation Inc. The event is produced by AEG Presents and Festival Productions Inc.-New Orleans.

Jazz Fest founder George Wein (who died in 2021, at age 95) is one of the people interviewed in the documentary. A longtime concert promoter, Wein says in the documentary that he was first approached to do Jazz Fest in 1962 by “someone from the Hotel Corporation of America” to do a “Newport [Jazz Festival] type of festival.” Wein said that because of Jim Crow laws at the time that made racial segregation legal in Louisiana, “I couldn’t have white musicians and African [black] musicians on stage at the same time.”

And so, Jazz Fest had to wait to launch only after the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed into law and ended legal racial segregation in the United States. Shell Oil Company signed on to be Jazz Fest’s first corporate sponsor. Jazz Fest’s first concert lineup in the event’s inaugural year included Mahalia Jackson, Duke Wellington, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Clifton Chenier, Fats Domino, The Meters, and the Preservation Hall Band.

Jazz Fest received support from the artistic community from the beginning, although attendance from the public was very low by today’s Jazz Fest standards. In the first year of Jazz Fest, which took place in Congo Square in 1970, about 350 people attended. Since then, Jazz Fest has become the biggest annual concert event in New Orleans, with an estimated 425,000 to 475,000 people in attendance, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jazz Fest founding producer Quint Davis comments in the documentary: “When Jazz Fest started, it was like we were presenting this music to the world … There were a lot of reasons everybody thought we would fail. One of them was bringing Cajun people and Latin people together.”

Davis adds, “Well, everybody eats, and everybody dances. So, if we can get people together to see what they eat and see what they dance to, I think that can work. When it was all put together in one place, it was stunning to the local people. They were amazed at themselves and felt tremendous pride.”

One particular New Orleans family became integral to Jazz Fest: the Marsalis family, who are world-renowned for their musical accomplishments, particularly in jazz. Ellis Marsalis Jr. (who died in 2020, at age 85) and four of his six sons—Wynton, Branson, Delfeayo, and Jason—are interviewed in the documentary, and they share fond memories of performing at Jazz Fest. The Marsalis brothers literally grew up at Jazz Fest and frequently performed as part of the musical group called the Ellis Marsalis Family Tribute. Branford Marsalis comments on performing with his brothers and his father Ellis: “When we walked out on stage, he ceased being my dad. He was the leader of the group.”

Davis comments on another popular Jazz Fest artist: “Jimmy Buffett is very, very special to us. He’s been responsible for drawing more people to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival than maybe anybody else.” Buffett says in the documentary: “Everything I do, from writing shows to writing songs comes out from being a child of the Mardi Gras.”

Other artists interviewed include Irma Thomas; Pitbull; Boyfriend; Sony Landreth; Big Freedia; Tom Jones; Divine Ladies member Angelina Sever; Preservation Hall Jazz Band member Ben Jaffe; Cowboy Mouth member Fred LeBlanc; High Steppers Brass Band member Daryl Fields; Tab Benoit; Marc Savoy; John Hammond; and Earth, Wind & Fire members Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson. The documentary also has archival footage of several performances, including those by Aaron Neville; Katy Perry with the Gospel Soul Children; Thomas; Pitbull; B.B. King; Al Green; Hammond; Big Freedia; Preservation Hall Jazz Band; Herbie Hancock; Nashville Super Choir; and Earth, Wind & Fire.

There’s an entire segment in the documentary about the food of Jazz Fest, with soundbites from some Jazz Fest food vendors, along with the expected delectable-looking display of New Orleans cuisine, such as jambalaya, crawfish, pralines and beignets. The movie tends to drift off-topic in the middle of the film, when it veers into a prolonged discussion of Mardi Gras, including the history of Mardi Gras and how Mardi Gras has impacted New Orleans Fortunately, the documentary eventually gets back on track to talking about Jazz Fest.

One of the best aspects of the documentary is the discussion about how Jazz Fest had a triumphant comeback in 2006, after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Bruce Springsteen’s emotionally moving Jazz Fest 2006 performance of “My City of Ruins” is in the documentary. Springsteen comments, “There are certain moments when you meet your audience, and that’s when the healing begins. It was one of the most beautiful concert experiences I ever had.”

The epilogue of “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” includes mention of how, for the first time in Jazz Fest history, the event was cancelled. It happened in 2020 and 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The epilogue includes a brief mention of Jazz Fest’s return in 2022, with footage of Buffet performing a rousing cover version of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

“Jazz Fest” is a documentary that often comes across as an electronic press kit video, because the commentary is non-stop praise of Jazz Fest and/or New Orleans, with no mention of any under-reported problems of Jazz Fest. The movie lacks any constructive criticism of the event and doesn’t talk about issues such as overcrowding or overpricing. But as a documentary that’s meant to celebrate the event, “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” is at its best when it lets the music and performances do the talking.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” in select U.S. cinemas on May 13, 2022.

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