Exploring a unique angle on an aspect of history is getting more and more difficult to do. This is especially difficult given that there is so much unvetted misinformation out in the world. Add to that, there are parts of the country in a regressive state eroding facts and erasing the complexity of US history. Despite that, Little Richard: I Am Everything finds a way. While we are knee-deep in the midst of another culture war, this documentary focuses on a few hot-button complexities. Namely, it looks at the intersections of race, gender, and culture. Using the complex history and impactful career of ‘The Living Flame’ himself, the ‘architect’ of Rock & Roll Little Richard, it explores the queer, Black roots of American pop music.
“Little” Richard Penniman is an onomatopoeia personified. A ‘bang!’ given life. In his own (accurate) opinion, he is the ‘Big Bang’ from which the Rock & Roll universe was born. I Am Everything goes above and beyond to make that distinct and clear. If you have never seen them navigate a stage or an interview, Little Richard is a force of queer, Black nature. The way he shifts from a polite, conservative, and contained curtness to an explosion of limbs in a violent rhythm. As if there is no neutrality to the joy or rage of his lived experience. Director Lisa Cortés draws a very honest picture and offers audiences a Richard more wholly seen than ever before.
I Am Everything accomplishes a lot in its one-hour and thirty-eight-minute runtime, truly. It attempts to bridge the gap in time from when Little Richard first pressed piano keys to the pantheon-filled phenomenon of modern Rock music. It works to define the undefined places in American history where otherness thrived, just outside of the view of the mainstream. It soothes the sore edges of a wound where the pain and degradation of Black life are met by the need to make art to survive it. It makes damn sure to tie Little Richard to every giant leap forward in the proliferation of Rock music. At its core, I Am Everything is a reminder that in the liminal nooks and crannies of society is where American cultural innovation comes from. Even if it overuses some elements that feel a little bit on the nose.
As a piece of film, I Am Everything is a documentary that hits all of the touchpoints one makes when making a documentary. What sets it apart is a layer of meta, the whole narrative is themed around giving credit where it’s due. The key subject matter centers around how long it took for one of the originators of the genre to get his props. Throughout the film, modern and contemporary musicians are featured singing Little Richard songs. In giving recognition to those newer artists in the way Little Richard would have wanted for themselves.
The visuals in I Am Everything are the stuff of Richard’s wardrobe. You can see glittery stardust floating in, on, and around moments that are tapping into some seminal moments in Richard’s life or the life of Rock music. A few montages of stellar bodies exploding juxtaposed with queer performers doing pole and drag. Musicians play pieces and interact with the stardust. It was a bit much and a little distracting, but it worked as a vehicle to anchor this idea that Little Richard – was everywhere and played a part in the meteoric rise of Rock music the world over. All in all, the documentary is a bit all over the place. But that is what it takes to put together the pieces of history and culture intentionally obscured. In the face of legislation aimed at removing people like Little Richard from the tapestry of American history, I Am Everything sits poised to remind the citizenry that queer Black people helped build this country from day one and deserve the dignity of being recognized.
You can find I Am Everything everywhere (all at once).
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