If Little Richard AKA Richard Wayne Penniman, was criminally underrated for much of his career, his legacy has burned bright since his death in May 2020. Last weekend, the BBC debuted James House’s Little Richard: King and Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll, a solid, feature-length UK/US co-production that’s now on iPlayer. Meanwhile, the Dee Rees exec-produced Little Richard: I Am Everything, which premiered at Sundance back in January, is in UK cinemas.
Unsurprisingly, there’s significant crossover between the docs in terms of archive footage and interviewees (Nile Rogers tells pretty much the same story in both – about David Bowie wanting to sound the way Little Richard looked). But the films also have distinctly different approaches, with director Lisa Cortés leaning further into the queer-theory aspects of Penniman’s ever-changing alter egos.
“The south is the home of all things queer,” says writer and scholar Zandria Robinson, adding that “queerness” essentially means “difference”. And Little Richard was definitely different. Describing himself as being “born deformed” (his limbs were of slightly unequal length), he grew up in a family of 12 children in Macon, Georgia, where his father, Charles (aka “Bud”), was a church deacon, nightclub owner and moonshine bootlegger. Vivacious interviewee Billy Porter talks of his affinity with the teenage Richard, being thrown out of his home for being gay, although Bud (who was later killed by one of Richard’s friends) welcomed his son back when his records started selling.
His life was a wrestling match between rock and religion. More than once he abandoned the stage for the church
Raised on gospel (“I wouldn’t stop singing”) and the rocking devotionals of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Richard took refuge in Ann’s Tic Toc speakeasy, finding kinship with queens and blues singers. On the “chitlin’ circuit” he performed as drag alter ego Princess LaVonne and was befriended by performer-activist Sir Lady Java, whose memories of Richard are purringly exhilarating. A thrilling mix of commentary and visual montage shows how flamboyant performers such as Billy Wright and Esquerita influenced Richard’s pompadour, pancake makeup and piano-playing, while cult film-maker John Waters proudly declares that his own trademark pencil moustache is a “twisted tribute” to Little Richard.
Just as Brett Morgen’s Bowie non-biopic Moonage Daydream painted its subject in a collage of cosmic glitter, so Cortés (whose credits include 2019’s The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion and 2020’s All In: The Fight for Democracy) imagines Little Richard’s career as akin to the big bang, with magical stardust drifting through interstitial graphics and staged musical numbers. A well-rehearsed story about how “Tutti Frutti, good booty” was transformed from an anal sex ode (“Nasty nasty,” says song rewriter Dorothy LaBostrie) to an ice-cream-flavoured love song has a cruel sting in the tail as Pat Boone’s anodyne version becomes a bigger hit than Little Richard’s (the BBC doc includes an interview with Boone, who calls himself a “midwife” of rock’n’roll – ha!). Cultural appropriation took a gay black sensation and repackaged it as white-bread pop. Yet even more fascinating is the suggestion that Little Richard’s femininity somehow made him more acceptable (ie, less threatening) to a white audience – as if his very queerness offered a backdoor to mainstream success.
Like Jerry Lee Lewis, who was famously recorded arguing theology with Sam Phillips at Sun Studio, Little Richard’s life was a wrestling match between rock and religion. More than once he abandoned the stage for the church, and vice versa (“He existed in contradiction,” says astute commentator Jason King). An infamous clip of Little Richard telling David Letterman that “God made Adam to be with Eve not Steve” is movingly counterposed with Lady Java saying that his words felt like a betrayal, while still gently reassuring that: “I understand, I understand – you’re not strong enough.”
What devils there are come in the form of music contracts that robbed black artists of royalties – a battle in which Little Richard became a pathbreaker, fighting for his financial due. Harder won were the battles for recognition, with his famous “And the winner is … me!” speech at the 1988 Grammys blending camp comedy and seething anger (“Y’all ain’t never given me no Grammy, and I’ve been singing for years”). As for this doc, it does an impressive job of reminding us how much generations of rock stars, from Tom Jones to Mick Jagger, Elton John and Prince, have owed to Little Richard, and how radical his presence was in a world not yet ready to pay for his talent.