1 of 9 | Little Richard performs at Boulevard Casino near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in September 2006. A documentary on the rock 'n' roll pioneer premieres Friday on streaming platforms. File Photo by Heinz Ruckemann/UPI | License Photo
PHILADELPHIA, April 21 (UPI) -- The world was experiencing an unprecedented pandemic when rock 'n' roll great Little Richard died at age 87 in May 2020. Amid lockdowns that left people isolated in their homes, producer-director Lisa Cortés wondered why no one had done a biopic or documentary on him.
Little Richard, the beloved public figure and TV staple, continued to perform well into his 70s. He was Black and gay at a time when that could mean career ruin.
Cortés won an Emmy as a producer for The Apollo, a 2019 HBO documentary about the storied Harlem theater. And she executive produced the Oscar-winning film Precious.
Her documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything, premieres on streaming platforms Friday.
Cortés places him in his rightful context as a rock 'n' roll pioneer who influenced The Beatles, Bob Dylan, James Brown and Prince, among others. His big hits, "Tutti Frutti" "Good Golly, Miss Molly" and "Long Tall Sally," were co-opted and recorded by White artists in the '50s in which his songwriting was present, but his soul was not.
In the documentary, Richard laments that he was paid less for his songs than the mainstream acts who re-recorded them.
"When he passed away in May of 2020, it was a crazy time for all of us," Cortés said in a recent Zoom interview. "We were in lockdown, and I started hearing his music all over. Such joy, such exuberance, coupled with testimonials from a broad range of people -- Bob Dylan, Dave Grohl from the FooFighters, Elton John.
"I'm like, 'Wait a minute, here's this great music. Here's all these people. He's rock 'n' roll.' That just was so compelling when I realized there had not been a feature-length documentary."
Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Ga., in 1932, Little Richard emerged from the South after leaving the family home as a teenager when his religious father refused to accept his sexuality.
He found mentors in the Black gay scene of the time that has largely been forgotten and honed his musical talents on the so-called "chitlin' circuit."
Cortés uses a combination of contemporary queer scholars, musicians and artists like Billy Porter, John Waters and Mick Jagger to share their views on Richard's life through the intersections of race, culture and queerness to tell a more complete story about the multifaceted star.
"I got to explore the multitudes that he contained as a child of the South, as a queer person, as a musician whose contributions were appropriated, obliterated, as someone who, by his very being in declaration of self, was transgressive and changed culture."
She added, "What was interesting to learn is how when he was kicked out of his home as a teenager for being queer, in his little city of Macon, Ga., he found a queer community. He had a family he was born into. But what we see with Richard is he also had a chosen family. And that chosen family were people from many diverse backgrounds."
This includes gospel artist Sister Rosetta Sharpe, now also considered a rock 'n' roll pioneer. While performing in Macon, she gave Richard his first paying job after hearing him sing as a teen when he was working at the Macon City Auditorium.
He was also mentored by Billy Wright, an openly gay singer in the '50s who inspired Richard to wear a pompadour hairstyle, pancake makeup and his signature pencil-thin mustache.
Esquerita, another flamboyant openly gay singer in the '50s, also influenced him down to his unrestrained piano playing and high pompadour. He later joined Richard's band.
Richard's grandiosity helped keep him relevant, but obscured some of the more significant parts of his six-decade-plus career. He's been inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1993, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
He is credited with helping integrate concert audiences as Black and White teens flocked to his shows. His musicianship, songwriting and kinetic stage presence directly influenced the burgeoning genre of rock 'n' roll.
In a pivotal moment in the documentary, viewers see the young Beatles pictured with Richard front and center, as he was one of the biggest superstars in music at the time.
"It's a picture that speaks a thousand words because we know who the Beatles are going to become," Cortés said. "We know that Little Richard introduces them to a teenage Billy Preston, who later on is going to be called the fifth Beatle. And we're like, whoa.
"Little Richard is part of music history and the inspiration to many artists. Jimi Hendrix is playing in his band. James Brown is brought to Macon, Ga., to record his first hit because of Little Richard. He's a conductor on this little rock 'n' roll train."
Despite his public-facing irreverence, Richard struggled with his sexuality, the documentary shows. Though he was once open enough to write "Tutti Frutti" as a celebration of gay sex -- we learn the more explicit version was changed by a collaborator for a more mainstream audience -- after surviving a rough flight returning from a show in Australia.
Richard decided his life was spared by angels who weren't happy with his lifestyle.
He renounced his music career and his sexuality, enrolling in the Christian Oakwood College (now Oakwood University) and getting married. Though he was a serious student by all accounts, his attempt at his gay conversion didn't last.
As shown in the documentary, he returned to the stage for a series of shows in the United Kingdom that were so electric, the attendees vandalized the arena out of sheer excitement.
Cortés said the documentary is relevant to the continuing struggles of artists today. A line can be drawn from Richard to Prince to Lil Nas X to any artist viewed as transgressive while making their cultural mark. As a Black director, Cortés said she wanted to frame Richard's life with that in mind.
"It always comes down to who tells the story and what is your connection to community. I was very intentional with these incredible Black and queer scholars to reflect on who Richard was and his cultural context," she said.
"This history is in keeping with conversations that we are having right now. It is in keeping with the criminalization of drag artists. It is in keeping with people who want to diminish the telling of African American history for AP classes.
"It is a part of my joy as a Black filmmaker to make certain that our stories are centered with love, with rigorous interrogation, but are centered in the knowledge of the value of Black cultural product."