At a time when Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is the talk of the town, a new documentary about Little Richard wants to remind you of the real king of rock and roll. Little Richard: I Am Everything is an engaging if not boilerplate biographical documentary unafraid to not only proclaim Little Richard’s true place in music history but to look at both his strengths and flaws.
Born in Georgia, Richard Wayne Penniman (aka Little Richard) rose to fame with tunes that were groundbreaking and raucous for their time. “Tutti Fruitti”, “Long Tall Sally”, and “Lucille” had crossover appeal thanks to white teenagers listening to all types of music. Effeminate and flamboyant, Little Richard pinned his success on being wholly himself. As the documentary highlights, sometimes that true self meant abandoning rock music for God and gospel tunes, renouncing his hyper persona until the bank accounts needed refilling. This internal yo-yo between selves occurred multiple times in his career, and the documentary highlights it as a way to illustrate that while he was loud and proud in public, he may not have felt so confident on the inside.
In addition to exploring his internal battles, the documentary uses the standard fare of archival footage and talking head interviews. It’s an endless parade of famous musicians to talk about the impact he had on them. Acts such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and of course, Elvis often took direct inspiration from the flashy singer and piano player. The film is clear that Little Richard himself never felt he received the recognition or compensation he deserved and isn’t shy about discussing how his race was a factor. Even today, and especially then, a person of color can find some success with a style that sees a white person co-opt it and hit superstardom.
The standard musician documentary beats are here. He came from a poor family, often struggled with his family accepting him, there were drugs and sex, and money. The documentary highlights that Little Richard often compared himself to astronomical terms like supernova and quasar and, in echoing his own words, superimposes stardust and space imagery over the footage. Some of his most famous songs see modern musicians covering them on sparse stages with the aforementioned stardust swirling throughout. These covers help illustrate how influential his music is even today, but oftentimes the chosen singers have voices so far away from Little Richard's unmistakable tone and verve that the performances end up feeling unnecessary. In some scenes, to emphasize the earth-shattering, primal nature of his music, there are montages of flowers blooming and nature reacting. It comes across a bit on the nose, a way to add some artsiness to your boilerplate biographical documentary.
Still, Little Richard was an unforgettable musician and personality before his death in 2020. Little Richard: I Am Everything is a comprehensive look at his life and legacy and isn’t afraid to point out his mistakes and lower moments. The film itself may not be as revolutionary as its subject, but Little Richard was never one to turn away a spotlight.