Society uses labels like Black, queer, disabled, or anything outside the “norm” to cast aside individuals. It’s easy to ignore people perceived as invisible, pushed into the shadows, or hidden away. However, some people burn so brightly that the labeling and the casting aside only make them shine brighter. No matter how society marked him, Richard Wayne Penniman, aka Little Richard, demanded to be witnessed. In her electric documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything, on the originator of rock n’ roll, Lisa Cortés shines a spotlight on the mesmerizing musician whose complex legacy is infused in the DNA of American popular music. 

Typically when legendary figures are given the documentary treatment, the audience goes in knowing quite a bit about them. But so much of Little Richard‘s legacy had been whitewashed and wallpapered over that every scene felt like peeling back the history of the music industry and American society. 

Though the film begins with a bedazzled Little Richard with his signature pancake makeup and conked hair, banging away at the piano, Cortés quickly pulls the audience back to the beginning. Born in Macon, Georgia, to a family with 12 siblings, Little Richard’s early life was a series of contradictions. His father was a strict minister who owned a nightclub and was a bootlegger. Though Christianity was a pillar in his life from the moment he was born, Little Richard saw varied aspects of worship. He attended his mother’s quiet Baptist church on Sunday mornings and his father’s vibrant A.M.E. church later in the afternoons.

Gospel music and the oratory nature of Black preachers would remain with Richard throughout his career. With a wealth of archival footage, interviews, and anecdotes from family, friends, and scholars, Cortés takes the audience through the winding roads of Little Richard’s life. It was a life that took stunning twists and turns but never stopped pressing forward, even if the direction changed. 

The music and the performances in I Am Everything are so full of beauty and eroticism that they are something to behold on their own. Yet, Cortés is careful to anchor the audience with history. As Little Richard was bringing Black and white teens together at concerts for the first time, Emmett Till was brutally murdered during a summer visit to Mississippi. More than just his Blackness, Little Richard’s queerness which he owned and denounced across various times, also made him a symbol and a target.

The rock n’ roll legend’s religiosity also made him a complex figure. Though he always had s steadfast relationship with God, the fears surrounding his homosexuality that were drilled into him during his upbringing often caused Little Richard to run away from himself. He stepped away from secular music at various moments in his career, attending religious colleges, getting married, selling Bibles, or running with the evangelical circuit.

Yet even as someone who lives on the fringes, the lack of reconnection he received from his peers was the thing that truly plagued him. I Am Everything dives into the rampant appropriation that Little Richard endured. As one scholar in the film called it, it was near obliteration. Though the accolades that went to his imitators like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones tormented Little Richard, the beauty of his legacy is that he never stopped advocating to be seen for exactly who he was and all of the brilliance that he contributed. 

Little Richard: I Am Everything premiered Jan. 19, 2023 at Sundance Film Festival.