Before Elvis, David Bowie, Prince, Harry Styles and Lil Nas X, there was Little Richard. The bright, shiny North star of rock and roll.
Richard Penniman, a pioneer rock ’n roller, was the third of 12 children in 1930s Macon, Ga. His brash personality got him the attention he desired. Banging piano keys like a percussive instrument, wearing flamboyant attire and singing provocative songs (“Tutti Frutti’) arguably made him the music industry’s ﬁrst true glam rock star. His DNA is everywhere.
Director Lisa Cortes (co-director, “All In: The Fight For Democracy”; producer, “The Apollo”; exec producer, “Precious”) astutely assembles an impressive group of legends who attests to Penniman’s showmanship and musical prowess: Tom Jones, Nona Hendryx, John Waters, Billy Porter and even Mick Jagger proclaims: “He did it ﬁrst!” If legends are deﬁned by how they changed the world, Little Richard deserves his flowers. He blended gospel, blues and boogie woogie music. Encouraged Black and White kids to dance together in concert halls that had been segregated forever. Gave fledgling bands (Beatles and Rolling Stones) the opportunity to open on the road for him. He left a scent. We can trace his influence. There are plenty of Little Richard imitators performing today who have no idea who blazed a path so they could be creative, outrageous and accepted. But it was him. They’re following him.
This perceptive doc also tackles the originator’s up and down, rags to riches to rags career. Rich king one day, foreclosures the next. Watching Pat Boone and Elvis cover his songs and make more money than he would ever see is disturbing. Equally troubling is the anguish he felt not owning the rights to his music. It’s a cautionary tale worth telling again and again.
Also on view are his ambivalent feelings regarding his sexuality. Proud gay man cavorting in underground Black drag clubs in the late ’40s. A Seventh Day Adventist pilgrim in the ’70s, pious and ashamed of his old ways. Retrospective elder recounting the orgies he threw and sermons he preached – as if it all works together in a preordained way. Through it all, he is never in doubt about his self-worth. After all, it isn’t hubris when you have the goods. It’s just the truth: “I am the emancipator the architect. The one who started it all.”
Cortes perceptively retraces both the glamorous side and the private life. Some of the most poignant testimonies are from his former backup band. Glimpses into his childhood, short-lived marriage and arrest add to his allure. Also learning that he worked the same chitlin circuit as Ma Rainey and was influenced by Rosetta Tharpe ties a lot of musical history together.
Penniman’s life journey and spirit are captured by Keith Walker and Graham Willoughby’s cameras, caressed by Tamar-kali’s musical score and artfully assembled by editors Jake Hostetter and Nyneve Laura Minnear. All the archival footage, photos and interviews are neatly clipped together in an hour and 41 minutes of revealing and entertaining footage.
If you pick the right subject, a documentary sells itself. In that way, Little Richard’s legacy is a magnet and music fans will be drawn to this enlightening doc. An astute, loving bio that catalogues the gigantic and well-deserved ego of the originator who knew he was everything: “I’m not conceited. I’m convinced.”
In theaters April 21.