Little Richard Wasn’t an Easy Doc Subject — but Filmmaker Lisa Cortés Knew He Was Worth the Work

Little Richard was a great musician and a true musical icon — but an unreliable narrator, filmmaker Lisa Cortés tells IndieWire.
"Little Richard: I Am Everything"
"Little Richard: I Am Everything"
courtesy of Sundance Institute

When Little Richard died at age 87 in May 2020 during the depths of the pandemic, New York filmmaker Lisa Cortés found herself listening to his music nonstop, from classics like “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Lucille,” and “Long Tall Sally,” to a wide range of surprising tributes, from Bob Dylan to Dave Grohl.

“I heard his music all over and it brought me a lot of joy,” she said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “Wait a minute,” she said to herself, “there’s never been a story, he hasn’t had that opportunity.” When she pitched her idea for a documentary following Little Richard with a twist — the final feature offers a slightly supernatural recasting of his musical career — Bungalow Entertainment and Rolling Stone Films agreed to back her, along with executive producer Dee Rees.

After directing two shorts and a music documentary (“The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion”) and co-directing the Oscar-nominated “All In: The Fight for Democracy” with Liz Garbus, Cortés wanted to take on the story of not just Little Richard, but Richard Wayne Penniman. Born one of 12 children born and raised by a pastor in Macon, Georgia, the musical icon used his flamboyant persona — and his place as a Black, queer person — to change the history of music with his pounding brand of rock ‘n roll.

The Beatles and the Rolling Stones revered him; white artists covered him (Elvis Presley and Pat Boone made more money on “Tutti Frutti” than Little Richard did, he complained); and his flashy wigs, makeup, and costumes sowed the seeds for gender fluid artists like David Bowie and Elton John.

“What I love about Little Richard,” said Cortés, “he’s not one-note, he is multi-dimensional. He is a transgressive figure that, through his music, performance, and gender fluidity, has had an impact that continues, that is affecting culture, and is also manifested in contemporary artists.”

Not only did “Little Richard: I Am Everything” land a coveted documentary competition slot at Sundance, but it also sold theatrical rights to Magnolia Pictures (it’s out this week), broadcast to CNN Documentary Films, and streaming to what was then known as HBO Max. In a year when many worthy documentaries left Sundance unsold, “Little Richard” was the well-reviewed commercial hit of the documentary lineup.

Here’s how Cortés veered away from a conventional cradle-to-grave music biodoc of Little Richard.

1. Put in glitter.

From the pitch, Cortés sought to avoid documentary conventions and go with “rogue storytelling,” she said. “I wanted this to be not a TV doc, but a feature doc.” To that end, throughout the movie she added sparkling motes that hang in the air. “That’s energy. At the beginning of the film, we set up that he is otherworldly, he is elemental, there is an energy that he initiates into the world via rock ‘n roll, so that’s why there’s the supernovas exploding and the cosmos being revealed, because he’s almost an alien figure who came here to bring this gospel,” she said. “But those sparkles are about the energy associated with the art.”

2. Add live performances.

“From the beginning, I talked about these dreamscapes of performances from contemporary artists John P. Kee, Valerie June, and Cory Henry, to be a part of the storytelling,” she said, “because I wanted to break the wall on what one expects with a music doc. Yes, this is a cradle to grave story. But there are also moments of possibility, performance, and a bit of the supernatural to come through. There are great archival performances by Richard, but I also wanted contemporary performances to bring us forward to show that the past is prologue to this moment and these artists we are experiencing now.”

3. Counteract your unreliable narrator.

“I centered Richard as the narrator of his story,” said Cortés. “I did a deep archival dive to see if we could find Richard’s voice through the years narrating these important moments of his journey. But I also was super-intentional with countering what he said. Because he wasn’t always the most reliable narrator, I made certain that I gave him the mic. But I also had people who were interviewed who would question him in the course of the storytelling.”

She continued, “For example, Richard says, ‘I put on makeup so that I am able to perform in the South for white girls and I’m not going to be challenging.’ And of course, homophobia is rampant, homosexuality is illegal. It does not make sense that this is what you do to protect yourself. So I love those instances where ‘yes, Richard, you can tell the story the way you perceive it.’ But we’re also going to challenge some of the ideas that you put forth.”

4. Dig into his secret life.

“I wanted to find images of Richard as Princess Livonia, his drag persona,” said Cortés, “and we could not find them. But we stumbled across a cache of images that were taken by a photographer of the underground black drag culture, they’re very intimate images, the participants are very open. And, that’s a part of our history that we haven’t heard about. But it was such an important community for Richard, when he was kicked out of his home, and to find representation of these artifacts of not only the community that took him in but of other people whose stories have really not been told.”

5. Track down past friends and lovers.

Sometime old-fashioned shoe leather yields results. Cortés slid a note under the Los Angeles door of Little Richard’s paramour Lee Angel, who called her back and joined her for breakfast that day. Angel helped Cortés to track down his old chum Sir Lady Java.

“She is a great discovery in this film, and so generous and wonderful,” said Cortés. “Sir Lady Java is this activist. Richard goes on the talk shows in the ’80s, and says, ‘Yeah, I was gay. I was one of the first gay people, it was out there.’ But in the ’50s and ’60s, he never declared himself as gay. But certainly Java is someone who knew him when he was gay, who can speak to what they shared through their queerness as young people, because they met in probably ’57 or so. So she’s someone who is helping us to understand his connection to a community that he did not talk about in great depth.”

6. Make the musical connections.

“People knew his connection to The Beatles, that picture of them surrounding him, you can just see so much joy that they have to be with their idol,” said Cortes. “They’re bursting out of their of their little shiny suits. When he goes to Hamburg, Richard has one musician with him, which is a very young teenage Billy Preston. He introduces Billy Preston to The Beatles. And as many people know, Billy Preston then goes on to be called what some people consider the fifth Beatle. Yes, so Richard is a connective tissue for so many many artists. Jimi Hendrix played in his band. James Brown he brought to Macon to record his first hit. He is a catalyst and an inspiration for a lot of these incredible rock and roll artists. And that part of the story has not been told.”

7. Parse the layers of personality.

There was a dichotomy between Little Richard’s music and the persona that he portrayed and the ways he was perceived by the music establishment. “When he’s on these talk shows, he’s almost like a comic foil, he’s a caricature,” said Cortés. “He’s one-note. And even if he’s saying, ‘I discovered this, I discovered that,’ it almost comes off as a rant when we’re not able to have a bigger understanding of the cultural context within which he meets these artists and fuels their vision. Anytime someone presents himself or is seen as a monolithic persona, we don’t see the layers of their infrastructure. I would think of it like an architectural rendering when you slice the building in half, and you see all the intricacies of what is the infrastructure of that building. The infrastructure of Richard, and also of rock ‘n roll, is what you see when you step back with this greater perspective that goes beyond these forward facing highly performative engagements with the different hosts that he met.”

8. Find the quotes.

“I have the dream cast in this film,” said Cortés. “It’s everyone that I wanted, because we have people through archival. I have Paul McCartney at a great moment talking about what it meant to him as a kid and how they performed Little Richard songs.” When the film was almost finished, Cortés got a call from Little Richard’s ex-wife Ernestine Penniman. “We had been told she had passed away, we could not find her. We have audio interviews with Ernestine. We were done with the film, we’re doing the fine-tuning and tinkering, we’re on deadline to hand it in. And that’s when she surfaced.”

9. Keep it short.

When you’re handing a movie into CNN Films, it has to be 98 minutes. “So you’re backing into your 98 minutes,” said Cortés. “And the biggest challenge for me was finding spaces to sit with the poignancy, particularly in the latter years and especially him at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame when he conducts Otis Redding. And he totally takes over the moment, but it’s also very sad. So that’s something that I would have loved to had a moment to sit with. But our editors did an incredible job of giving us the intention and the most powerful moments of that scene.”

10. And keep the conversation going.

“I’m excited that this film is going to be in places to challenge historical narratives that people are trying to contain,” said Cortés, “and to present a counterpoint of real history, real lived history, by Black people, by queer people. Who are important Americans.”

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