The new documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything held a big one-night-only premiere at Gene Siskel Film Center on April 13, the first 2023 film screened for the Doc10 Film Festival, Chicago's only all-documentary festival.
Known for hits such as "Good Golly, Miss Molly" and "Tutti Frutti," Little Richard Wayne Penniman was raised in Macon, Georgia, as the son of a minister before his music career took off. The outspoken trailblazer described himself as gay publicly, then denounced the identity and referred to himself as "omnisexual" in the Charles White book The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock. "The architect of rock and roll" constantly wrestled with his religious upbringing until he left this earth in 2020, but his legacy still lives on thanks to storytellers such as Baz Luhrmann with the film Elvis in 2022 and Lisa Cortes with this project.
Serving as both director and producer for I Am Everything, Cortes brings experience from many past cinematic endeavors including the Academy Award-winning film Precious and Emmy Award-winning The Apollo.
The Yale University graduate sat down to discuss her latest venture just before the packed screening took place at 164 North State Street.
Windy City Times: Where are you stationed these days?
Lisa Cortes: New York, but I have spent a lot of time here in Chicago. I have been working on another documentary called The Empire of Ebony. It is about the John Johnson Publishing story, and over the past two years I have been here filming on and off.
WCT: Did you always want to create documentaries?
LC: I feel like I was meant to do this. In my previous incarnations, I have had careers in the music business, starting off at Def Jam after I graduated from college in the late '80s.
I eventually left my own music label for a bigger platform to tell stories, so I went to film school and a friend asked me to make a film in New Orleans called Monster's Ball. That started a wonderful relationship with Lee Daniels as his producing partner from Woodsman to Precious.
WCT: First question about the new documentary I Am Everything: Why was he called Little?
LC: He was just named that when he was on the road, and it was part of his persona.
WCT: But he had a big personality.
LC: Exactly. He proved them wrong!
WCT: Was he out of the closet or in the closet most of the time?
LC: He burst onto the scene in 1955. What is interesting about Richard and his queerness is that it is not until he goes on talk shows in the '80s that he starts stating that he is gay. He wasn't out before that, but described himself as the first out gay person later in life, when he really wasn't [out]. I applaud him for sharing that, but it certainly was after the fact.
WCT: Was the song "Tutti Frutti" really about anal sex?
LC: That is all in the movie, but what I will say is the original lyrics were bawdy. When the producers heard the music they knew the song was a hit, but they couldn't use the original lyrics, which started with "Tutti Frutti, good booty." They brought someone else in to clean it ,up and that is the reason that, even though he wrote the song, Dorothy LaBostrie was credited as a co-writer.
WCT: Was there a lot of footage to go through in the making of this doc?
LC: There was a tremendous amount of footage, but the guiding principle was for Richard to narrate his story. It was to give him the mic and agency because so many times he felt he was not recognized.
I thought it was important to locate those archival moments where he narrated his own story. We know Richard is not a reliable narrator all the time, so that is why his family, friends, musician co-workers and incredible Black and queer scholars are all part of the conversation within the movie. They called him out at times about telling the truth, to show what really happened. What I love is that the incredible team I worked with did a deep dive into the footage and narrated his voice from cradle to grave.
WCT: Richard influenced so many people. How did you decide on who to spotlight in this film?
LC: We got the right people. We found the ones that knew him and loved him, who had intimate connections with him. If they didn't know him then they had deep and insightful things to say about his importance and how he fits into this constellation of rock and roll.
WCT: Was there something that stood out about Little Richard that you discovered while making this documentary?
LC: I love the story of Little Richard as a young person who goes on the Chitlin circuit and performs in drag as Princess LaVonne. It allows us to have a conversation in the film that, even though he's doing this in the 1940s, people have been performing in drag balls at least since the late 1800s according to documentation. His story is revelatory and makes us realize that drag may have gone back even further.
WCT: Why were Billy Porter and John Waters chosen to be a part of the Little Richard documentary?
LC: Billy says it beautifully in the film that he would not be who he is as a Black, queer man if it hadn't been for Little Richard and the foundation that he laid.
I am a super fan of John Waters and love the movie Hairspray with Divine. In many ways that film is a backstory to this one. Hairspray is about Black and white teenagers in the '50s coming together through rock and roll. It echoes the origin story of Little Richard with rebellious music and, while parents might hate it, the music brings everyone together.
Little Richard is one of the original architects and instigators of this art form.
WCT: Sounds like your music background came in handy for this project.
LC: It helped, but it was difficult because there were so many songs I wanted to have in the film. We had an incredible music supervisor.
WCT: Why were other people brought in to sing Richard's songs throughout the story?
LC: I call those moments dreamscapes, where Valerie June performs a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song and Cory Henry performs "Tutti Frutti." I see these artists as part of the family tree and successful artists in their own right. They are not doing recreations, but they are a part of the immersive experience of the music in the story.
It helps the audience see what Little Richard started didn't stop. We all have a little of his DNA inside us.
WCT: Was there something you learned with Precious that you brought to the Little Richard film?
LC: There is something very similar between the two. There are people that we meet in life that we think we know who they are and what they are about. People think they know Little Richard and the little girl sitting on the bus, but humans are incredibly complex and nuanced. When we take the time to peel the layers, we see their humanity. We see that they are more than the limited monolithic projections and the assumptions we make about other people.
WCT: What would you like audiences to take away from Little Richard: I Am Everything?
LC: Everyone is going to experience something different. It is important to center Little Richard and his contributions right now, at a time where Black and queer history is being attacked. We are being told that we don't need to know this history. What we all know is that history sets us all free.
WCT: Who else would you like to make a documentary about?
LC: As a documentarian, I would love to tell Cher's story; oh, Sade would also be a good one. I want to know what shade of lipstick she wears. We don't know that much about Sade personally.
WCT: She has a child that is transgender, so that could be explored.
LC: That is true. Stevie Wonder would be a good interview subject as well. I want to do all these icons, because of their style and grace. They use their voice for political change, just like Richard did!
Little Richard: I Am Everything goes everywhere on digital platforms and theatrically in select markets on April 21, 2023.
For more information on upcoming documentary films visit Doc10.org .