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‘Little Richard: I Am Everything’ depicts the star’s lifelong struggle with sexuality and religion

The new documentary explores the late singer’s complicated life constantly swinging between the secular and the profane.
Little Richard performs in New York
Little Richard performs in New York in the 1980s.Getty Images file

When Little Richard entered the music scene in the 1950s, he did so with a flamboyance, charm and musical talent that broke barriers in the world of rock ’n’ roll. Yet, hidden far from the spotlight was a struggle many devoted fans didn’t see.

The new documentary “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” which is now available for streaming, explores the artist’s impact on rock ’n’ roll and his enduring musical legacy, along with his inner struggles to embrace both his Christianity and his identity as a gay man.

Lisa Cortés, the film’s director, said she decided to participate in a documentary about the Black icon’s life after reading about “all the amazing people” that he connected with throughout his life and the influence he had exerted around the world at the time of his death in 2020 at age 87.

“I felt like, ‘Wow, you know what — it’s crazy that no one’s ever done a story on him,’” Cortés said. After being presented with the opportunity to take part in the project by film producer Liz Yale Marsh, Cortés said she joined the team in July 2021. Those featured in the film include music giants such as Billy Porter, John Waters, Mick Jagger and Tom Jones. 

Cortés, who is the executive producer of the 2009 film “Precious” and a prime-time Emmy Award winner, said she learned intimate details about Little Richard’s life by reading his authorized biography, “The Life and Times of Little Richard,” which she called a great initial source to “hear in his voice” the monumental moments that stood out in his career.

What Cortés finds most compelling about Little Richard’s story, she said, is his “explosive and so original” music, but also the “complicated life that he had swinging between the secular and the profane.”

“He is such a complex character, but he’s also a persona that is in conversation with now, as we look at gender fluidity and a variety of ways of expressing ourselves,” Cortés said.

Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman in 1932, one of 12 siblings raised in Macon, Georgia. He was first introduced to gospel music in Pentecostal churches and, as a teenager, he was kicked out of the house by his father for being gay. Little Richard broke out with his 1955 song “Tutti Frutti,” followed by hits like “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” all of which were often energetic and playful with sexual undertones.

Despite his musical success, Little Richard often struggled with reconciling the secular music lifestyle, his queerness and his religious beliefs. At the height of his career in 1957, during a show in Australia, the singer announced he was leaving rock ’n’ roll and went on to attend Oakwood College, a theological school in Huntsville, Alabama (now known as Oakwood University), where he studied and performed gospel music. He released “King Of The Gospel Singers” album in 1961. Little Richard’s journey back and forth between rock ’n’ roll and Christian music continued throughout his music career, including when he returned to the secular arena with “Little Richard Is Back (And There’s a Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On!)” in 1964.

Throughout the 1970s, Little Richard struggled with drug use, traveled back and forth between Christian music and secular music, and at times denounced homosexuality, and once said, “If God can save an old homosexual like me, he can save anybody.” In a 1982 interview, he told David Letterman that he had been gay all his life but that God had let him know that “He made Adam be with Eve, not Steve.”

Following his secular music hiatus, Little Richard released “Great Gosh A’Mighty” in 1986, included in his album “Lifetime Friend,” and re-entered the world of performing. He went on to release other albums, including a Disney children’s album called “Shake It All About” in 1992. He also made film and television appearances, often with his signature motto, “Shut up!” He announced his retirement in 2002 and gave a final interview in 2017 to a Christian broadcaster, where he shared how much God had changed his life. “I’m so glad that I know Jesus,” he said at the event.

The story of Little Richard’s life has elements that resonate with today’s viewers, Cortés said.

“We live in a time where trans, queer people, are being criminalized, as they should not be,” Cortés said. “And this film, if anything, is a testament to the power of a man from this community.”