Sundance 2023: ‘Little Richard: I Am Everything’ Honoring A Rock ‘N’ Roll Legend


Little Richard appears in “Little Richard: I Am Everything” directed by Lisa Cortés (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

By Andre Montoya, Arts Writer


Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as “Little Richard,” is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The documentary “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” premiering this year at Sundance, takes a full look at the prolific rock star’s career and long-lasting legacy in popular culture.

Director Lisa Cortés closely explores the many aspects and phases of Penniman’s life, both personal and professional, from his early childhood in Macon, Georgia, to rise to fame with songs like “Tutti Frutti” or “Long Tall Sally,” and the many later phases of his life.

Cortés is also known for her award-winning work with documentaries like “All In: The Fight For Democracy” (2020) and movies like “Precious” (2009). Her latest work is an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

A King of Rock ‘N’ Roll

The film explores how influential Little Richard was on the entire rock ‘n’ roll genre and how his antics and energy were enough to entice white audiences in the 1950s. It also touched on how he trailblazed a new path for other Black artists while being unequivocally and openly gay.

However, his line of work was often whitewashed, oftentimes his songs being covered by white artists — “Long Tall Sally” being an example the documentary uses to demonstrate this point as it directly compares Penniman’s enigmatic performance of the song to a cover by Pat Boone to great effect.

Many of the most celebrated white rock ‘n’ roll artists were either inspired or directly influenced by Little Richard, artists like Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Mick Jagger. Yet, this fact is oftentimes left out when discussing the success of such artists.

If anyone would refuse to be pushed aside, it’s Little Richard. Apart from riling the crowd up with his infectious energy or enthralling with his boisterous voice, he wore incredibly flamboyant costumes on stage.

Despite his success, Little Richard was no stranger to setbacks. Whether it was not receiving the royalties from record labels, his time using hard drugs almost daily, or trying to find common ground between his sexuality and his Christianity, his life wasn’t always glamorous.

A Long-Lasting Legacy

The documentary is full to the brim with testimonials from entertainers, industry insiders and people close to Little Richard like Lee Angel, a socialite he became involved with later in life. Entertainers like Billy Porter, Paul McCartney and Tom Jones are also featured fondly reminiscing the legend they knew in life.

Often, the more musically charged moments are intercut with sparkles flying across the screen, images of galaxies and nature all to capture the absolute sensation that was Little Richard when he got to do his thing. This is one of the documentary’s strengths, as it makes it very clear that the one thing Little Richard was, was unapologetic: unapologetically loud, unapologetically queer, unapologetically full of life and love to give.

Today there are more celebrated Black artists like Lil Nas X, Lizzo, The Weeknd, SZA and more that continue to push the envelope in the same way as Little Richard did. It’s clear from this documentary that his legacy will be as bold and enduring as he was in life.


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