“What would it do to the American mythology of rock music to say that its pioneers were Black, queer people?” the ethnomusicologist Fredara Hadley asks in the new documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything, out Friday. It’s a valid question, and the film offers an exuberant answer. In order to tell the story of the pathbreaking piano-rocker whose work still pulses in roadside diners and on wedding dance floors, the director, Lisa Cortés, uses animated sparkles and montages of rainbow fringe and high heels. Along with Hall of Famers such as Mick Jagger, commentary comes from the ever-fabulous actor Billy Porter and a few Black scholars of gender, race, and the arts. They argue that “Tutti Frutti” was not just a hot song; it was a Molotov cocktail lobbed at the heteropatriarchy.
All of this may sound like a provocation, but it’s mostly an assertion of fact. In addition to popularizing the combo of chugging-train drum beats and lusty wails, Little Richard personally tutored the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and directly inspired James Brown and David Bowie. A wearer of eyeliner who variously described himself as gay or omnisexual over the years, he built upon a preexisting queer lineage. When Richard’s father threw him out of his Macon, Georgia, home at an early age, Richard was taken in by the owners of a queer-leaning nightclub. He’d soon learn from drag queens, bawdy chanteuses, and a few Black singers now legendary for defying gender norms: the gospel guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who brought Little Richard onstage for the first time; the bouffant-wearing Esquerita, who taught him to play piano; and the “Prince of the Blues,” Billy Wright, who inspired his love of makeup.