Honoring the Musical Genius and Transgressive Power of Little Richard
The first thing film director Lisa Cortés did when she found out Magnolia Pictures had picked up her documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything, was send a cosmic shout-out to the rock ‘n’ roll icon. “I said, ‘Thank you, Little Richard!’” she confesses. Cortés, whose gripping portrait of the singer opens this Friday, is that dedicated. And she views Richard’s life, music, and heritage almost providentially. “I always feel like I like to invoke his spirit when wonderful things happen—that almost feel like they are in the realm of the supernatural that he inhabits,” she says. “And this film, at this time, in the landscape, to have…an incredible production company behind it, a great team…everything came into alignment.”
A huge draw for Cortés, who directed the 2020 documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy and shares a production credit on the Oscar-winning 2009 film Precious, was Richard’s inviolable status as a rebel, equal parts transgressive and inspiring. After Richard’s passing in 2020, Cortés saw an immediate opportunity to tell the story of one of music’s most transformative figures. If anything, she was surprised that no notable films had explored Little Richard’s legacy. His against-all-odds victories, emerging as a queer Black man in the Jim Crow South, made him all the more impressive—an ageless avatar for spicy steadfastness offering irrepressible hope for all who stood in solidarity with the underdog. That was crucial to Cortés, who, throughout her career, has made it her mission to celebrate firebrands.
Establishing herself in the Nineties as an A&R rep at Mercury Records, Cortés helped jumpstart the careers of such left-of-center hip-hop acts as Black Sheep and Ultramagnetic MCs. Parlaying her formidable industry experience into a career in film, she’s largely to thank for introducing the world to the troubled teenager Claireece “Precious” Jones, whose raw redemption story was so gripping, it earned Precious over $63 million at the box office. As a producer of the Academy Award—nominated movie—which was adapted from a popular urban memoir—Cortés was pivotal in turning tense melodrama (favored by sidewalk booksellers) into a glitch-in-the-Matrix megahit.
Little Richard: I Am Everything, which is co-produced by Rolling Stone, embodies everything we love about Richard. It’s a brisk and informative romp that feels as intimate and edgy as an all-night concert. Old clips from Little Richard performances, interspersed with lively commentary from his friends and fellow musicians, highlight his captivating journey. And the bravado expressed in every one of his sassy bon mots reminds you of how timelessly entrancing his music is. Cortés lets journalists, scholars, and historians expound on Richard’s life, supplying insight and fascinating context.
But there’s nothing like seeing Richard sweating through classics like “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” and “Tutti Frutti,” all of which floor you when reexamined through Cortés’s lens. Loping bass, rollicking guitars, and blaring sax incite teenyboppers to cut up juke-joint dance floors. And Cortés shows us how revolutionary Little Richard was in bringing people together. Nearly every pregnant utterance in the film confirms his impact on the culture. You walk away from Little Richard: I Am Everything wanting to revisit his songs, wholly convinced of his relevance. “Well, it’s Saturday night, and I just got paid“—from his 1956 tune, “Rip It Up”—invokes contemporary artists like Johnny Kemp and Montell Jordan. And “I’m gonna rip it up…and ball tonight,” from that same single, might as well be a Migos bar. Cortés’s crystalline storytelling reveals Little Richard as a progressive, immortal legend.
And like her film’s hero, Cortés seems to be in constant go-mode. She’s like a walking encyclopedia of music history and speaks with a dizzying if tickled, sense of authority. Talking to Rolling Stone on the phone from a Little Richard: I Am Everything screening, Cortés touched on everything from Lizzo’s debt to Richard to his potential as a Twitter celebrity.
What drew you to Little Richard’s story? What inspires you most about him, and why is Little Richard “everything”?
Well, first of all, the story, a feature-length doc, had not been made about him. So for a filmmaker, that’s catnip—the ability to interrogate an icon whose impact on culture exists on numerous levels. It’s not just the music, it’s not just the man, but it’s also the cultural context in which he created everything. You know, it’s 1955, and he decides to declare himself an innovator—king—and to unleash this crazy rock ‘n’ roll. And, so it’s, you know, it’s daunting because the story hasn’t been told, but it’s also exciting because there were so many layers to interrogate in looking at Richard. And when he passed away in 2020, I was really affected by the range of people who gave tribute to him. And I’m like, “Why is Dave Grohl, why is Bob Dylan, why…are all these people that you would not expect to be attributing so much of their own art to Little Richard…” And I was like, “There’s something here.”
When you look at old footage of Little Richard performances from back in the ’50s, you see a lot of white kids wilding out to his music. A Black man performing to an integrated audience of Blacks and whites. That was pretty revolutionary at the time, and it hasn’t really been touched on enough. Did you feel particularly motivated to address that in the film?
Well, I think the myth of American rock and roll has not posited Richard for the essential role that he played. And it’s not only about the music, but it’s like, as Richard said, Black and white people were not listening to the same music, they were not celebrating, they were not partying together. And he brings teenagers, Black and white, together, which—an act in itself—is pretty radical. And he does this still at a time when Emmett Till was killed for [allegedly assaulting] a white woman. So there’s something radical and daring and innovative in his very presence, in his ability to circumvent the racism that existed, you know, that did not allow him to stay and eat in hotels and restaurants. But beyond that, he’s able to triumph and…not let that daunt his spirit or his innovation.
Researching for the film, what are some things that surprised you that you maybe didn’t know about Richard, that viewers, you know, might find fascinating?
Well, one of the organizing principles of the film is to give the mic to Richard, to let him tell his story. To give him the agency that oftentimes, through the course of his life, he felt he had been denied. And by giving him the mic, we’re able to have what is hopefully an immersive experience of the cradle-to-grave story.
You feature a lot of heavyweights in the film—Nona Hendryx, among others. Of course, Mick Jagger. I’m just curious: what wild stories did Mick tell you about the Stones’ first tour in ’63 with Little Richard?
Well, they weren’t so wild (laughs). What I enjoyed in my conversation with Mick Jagger is we talked about things that maybe a lot of journalists had not skirted with him, which is about his deep regard for, not only Little Richard, but also Sister Rosetta Tharpe, how deeply influenced he was by these artists. And it was pretty amazing to hear about him sitting here for 30 shows in a row, and learning so much just by Richard’s performance. And, you know, to hear about The Beatles—that’s one of my favorite lines in the film. ‘Cause, you know, Little Richard is introduced to the Beatles by their manager Brian Epstein, and Little Richard goes, “Ain’t nobody know them but their mothers,” which is this really great way of saying, like, “The Beatles were not the thing; I was the thing.” You know, Jimi Hendrix was in his band, Billy Preston was—you know, Richard brings a young Billy Preston to England, which is how he meets the Beatles, and ultimately becomes the fifth Beatle. So, Richard is…his fingerprints, his inspiration are on so many incredible R&B artists, rock and roll artists. And just by his mere being, they were able to get so much that they could then bring into their personal style.
You touched on the massive influence that Little Richard obviously had on everyone. Of course, Jagger and the Stones have been nothing but reverent towards Little Richard. But how big of a deal do you think Little Richard’s claims that white artists stole from him are?
I think there’s a very compelling argument made in the film about appropriation and obliteration. And as we know with obliteration, it not only negates your contribution but it also affects your ability to make money. And that’s something that we saw have a serious effect in Richard’s life.
Absolutely. Do you think it’s still a problem today as far as white artists co-opting styles from Black artists? Did you talk to Richard about this before he passed in 2020? What, if anything, did he have to say about this as a current problem or issue?
I did not have an opportunity to meet him. But what I did do in making this film was an exhaustive archival sweep, so that I could have Richard’s voice narrating his story from cradle to grave. And I think in terms of, you know, the story of appropriation now, we see it on TikTok. A black person creates a style, a craze, and then they lose their copyright, so to speak. So, I think it is different because we do have broader ways of documenting ownership. Because somebody can pull up the video, and say, “Well, actually, I’m the first to do this.” But, you know, we have to get in the time machine, and go back to 1955, where innovation can happen from one community…be co-opted by another, and there is no way to make certain that the true record is put forth.
You see other legends like Dionne Warwick being very active (and hilarious) on social media today. How dope would Little Richard have been on Twitter?
I think he would’ve been incredible. I think he would’ve given us the truth, he would have quoted from the Bible, ’cause his faith was really important to him. But I think he also had a lot of love for people, and he could’ve offered some cautionary advice on how to make it through this crazy world.
One of his bars, one of many bars that he spit in the film—in an interview years later, he said something like, “I may have been one of the first people that came out.” In the Black community, back then, that had to have been a very radical or transgressive move.
Yeah, it totally is. And I think all of us encounter different Richards. You know, I met people who were teens when he first came on the scene. I remember him in the late ’80s on talk shows going, “Shut up!” and there are the people who only know him from being on The Pee-wee Herman Show. I think that during the course of his life, in many ways, he started to become one note when he contained so much. That’s the thing. And that’s what’s so interesting about this film…is to spend time with the different Richards, to spend time with the rock ‘n’ goll Richard, to spend time with the sinner, and to see how he is on this kind of rollercoaster pulling him back and forth.
Who are some artists today that you feel are influenced by Little Richard?
Well, I think his legacy you can see in many place. So many people when they see this film talk about Prince. From dance to his makeup choices (laughs), outfits, and electric—you know, [Prince] leads with the guitar…as opposed to Richard, who leads with the piano as his main instrument. But it’s the same energy that they’re both unleashing. I think it is fair to say you don’t have Lil Nas X, you don’t have Prince—we might not have Lizzo—if you didn’t have Little Richard. I think it’s intergenerational. That’s what I like about this film. You might have grown up with [Little Richard], or this could be your first introduction. But there’s some great music, and there’s something poignant: it is spiritual, and it always has the spirit of rock and roll.