He was the self-proclaimed Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a verified originator of the form who never got his due rewards for blazing a trail followed by the likes of Michael Jackson, Prince, Rick James, and Lil Nas X.
Little Richard was a king of rock, until he wasn’t, dramatically turning away from secular music to make gospel, until he later came back to rock. He was the hottest star on stage or record, until he was no longer cool, losing himself to drugs, until later he came roaring back to the top.
He was outrageously gay, until he wasn’t, vehemently renouncing his homosexuality, until he later came back to chasing men and women, ultimately marrying his bride Ernestine.
Richard Wayne Penniman, who died in 2020, was many things, hence the revealing new documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything, directed and produced by Lisa Cortés (All In: The Fight for Democracy), who sought to capture the mercurial musician’s many contradictions and put into perspective his undeniable cultural impact.
“I realized that in looking at Richard’s history, he’s like, I always say, a pendulum,” says Cortés. “He’s going back and forth. He’s out, he bursts on the scene. He’s flamboyant. Then, he thinks the world’s coming to an end. He goes to Bible College. He marries a woman. He leaves rock and roll. Wait a minute! He’s doing gospel music. Wait a minute! He’s divorced. He wants to be the Living Flame. So, you know, Richard has this push-pull between the sacred and the profane.”
Every facet of Richard’s life is considered, including his early days performing as drag persona Princess LaVonne, and the musical influence of queer mentors like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Billy Wright, and nearly forgotten R&B butch queen Esquerita.
The movie, which relies on abundant footage of Little Richard in performances and candid interviews — along with testimony from luminaries Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Billy Porter, and Nona Hendryx, to name a few — remarkably also turns up an interview with Richard’s wife Ernestine, who remembers him fondly.
“Ernestine is the craziest story,” Cortés recalls. “We tried to find her when we were making the film, and people were like, ‘No, she’s dead. She’s dead.’ You Google her, she’s dead. And then we were finishing the film, the film was locked. We didn’t have no more money to shoot. And I get a call from this lady.
“She said, ‘You know, there are certain things that Richard was about, and that were important to him. And I would like to be able to at least share my voice in your film, to give my perspective that he was a loving husband.'”
While Cortés and crew would never be able to work with the subject of the film himself, since production started after Little Richard passed, here, to their utter surprise, was his ex-wife Ernestine calling to be part of the documentary.
“They stayed friends until the end,” says Cortés. Ernestine wanted the record to show that “his faith was important to him. And that, I think, in his faith, he had love for all humanity. Those are the things that she said, ‘Hey, that’s what Richard was about.’ And I was like, okay, I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but I worked with incredible editors, and we found a way to do an audio interview and work it into the film. But thank you, Miss Ernestine!”
Little Richard: I Am Everything is available on VOD and digital platforms including iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, and Google Play. Visit www.littlericharddocumentary.com.
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