Like a quasar burning past the gaslight, director Lisa Cortés’ eye-opening documentary explodes the whitewashed canon of American pop music. Little Richard: I Am Everything shines a clarifying light on the Black, queer origins of rock ’n’ roll, and establishes the genre’s big bang: Richard Wayne Penniman.
Testimonials from legendary musicians and cultural figures, Black and queer scholars, Penniman’s family and friends, and interviews with the artist himself all exuberantly reclaim a history that was willfully appropriated by white artists and institutions. Cortés updates the canon with a treasure trove of rarely seen archival footage of Penniman. Among the gems are scenes with his Black and queer predecessors and contemporaries, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe: the mother of rock ’n’ roll who gave 14-year-old Penniman his first break.
Cortés depicts Penniman’s complex journey as a conflicted revolutionary who careened between religion, sex, and rock ’n’ roll, navigating the extreme tensions of race and sexuality of his time. She reminds us that outsiders and outcasts can possess superpowers that, given the chance, can create new worlds for us all to dance in.