Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 16, 2024 8:27 am 
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The under-recognized king of rock and roll

This in most ways is a standard music documentary biopic but it is nonetheless an essential one. It helps to right a wrong, because Little Richard - Richard Wayne Penniman (December 5, 1932 – May 9, 2020) - is a hugely important figure in pop music, a seminal and transitional artist. But as he frequently declared, he didn't get the recognition he deserved.

What you learn here may surprise you. You will see him together with the Beatles before they had even made a record. They recount how excited they were to meet him. He was a musical god for them. He took them to Hamburg to perform. Later, the Rolling Stones were an opening act for Little Richard. He recorded before Elvis. James Brown was a pupil of his. It pretty much all flowed from Little Richard.

And as a performer nobody could match him. An English musician who played with him on an English tour recounts that every time he performed, he created a riot in the hall. The energy, the excitement, the dynamism were unmatched. And in person in interviews he was articulate, provocative, and funny. As a performer he was also beautiful-looking, a pretty man. His prettiness was a hint that he wasn't macho, but women nonetheless swooned for him. They threw their panties on stage. His personality, his performances, and his music were all dripping with sexuality, eroticism, the suggestiveness of early black pop music, the wellspring of rock and roll.

The complexity of Little Richard's identity gets some going over in this film by talking heads qualified to talk about race and sexuality. He grew up in Macon, Georgia, a small, conservative, religious town. The family attended two churches, one Baptist and staid where you sat still and another sanctified, Pentecostal one where you never sat down. He was kicked out of the house by his father, who was a preacher and ran a club, for being gay. There were eleven children, seven male and four female. His father said "I wanted to have seven boys but you ruined that." It may also surprise to learn that he was (apparently) always open about being gay. Over and over in TV interviews he declares his sexuality. But he came up at a time when it wasn't okay, was even illegal to be homosexual. At one point he declares himself to be "the Black Liberace" - but of course he was infinitely more exciting, musical, and influential than the latter. And what a big one in the key period of rock and roll, the Fifties. As the Wikipedia article recounts, "By 1959, Richard had scored a total of nine top-40 pop singles, as well as seventeen top-40 R&B singles."

The talking heads include various white admirers from the early days, and part of this story is the transition from "race music" to rock and roll, and from Blacks and whites being segregated and not allowed to attend the same concerts, to white kids breaking into the shows with Black artists and Black audiences, as the musical landscape changed completely - with Little Richard leading the charge. Little Richard was a first major crossover artist.

John Waters is an important talking head here. Growing up in Baltimore, white, middle class, and gay, he recounts how he and his friends were glued to the radio, listening to WWIN, WEBB, and WSID for the Black music at night, which fed their musical culture. It turns out Little Richard was more than that for Waters: his "Lucille" changed Waters' life, contributed in a major way to his daring to be himself. He declares that the pencil-line mustache he has worn for 50 years is, in fact, a homage to Little Richard. "The first song that you love that your parents hate is the beginning of the soundtrack of your life," Waters declares. But this film shows Richard was good at liberating others, but not himself. He was troubled by contradictions and changes of heart much of his life.

It wasn't okay to be gay. Nor was it okay to be Black, and LIttle Richard's early years of touring occurred when he and his band mates drove from town to town at night in the south when they could not stop for gas, and. they performed in clubs where they could not eat, could not go to the bathroom. And yet his style, the pancake makeup, the "pretty" look, was provocative and openly non-masculine. It was a unique look, that changed little except to become more outrageous, over the years. Watch for the outrageous and wonderful outfits he starts wearing on stage in the Seventies. And take a minute to admire his bold, and "pounding, mesmeric" piano style (David Remnick's New Yorker eulogy], "Little Richard, the Great Innovator of Rock and Roll").

His early career is narrated here. At first he couldn't get recorded, but he was persistent, and once he had a record out, there was another and another, and he had a string of hits. He became famous. He made money. He bought a big house in California and moved his family there. He became reconciled with his father, and was the breadwinner of the family. He was Little Richard now.

His outrageousness and vibrant musical energy never flagged - Except that he went through a period when he saw flashing lights and fire and imagined that he had seen himself going to hell. He dropped everything, attended a religious college, denied his sexuality and tamed down his performing - for a while. There was no money in selling Bibles. He had to support his family. The Little Richard performing began again.

The record contracts led to exploitation. He got little money from his hits. Worse than that, perhaps, is the "obliteration" that came from the admiration of white artists. One by one we see his hits covered by the many white musicians who rose to stardom feeding off his musical energy and inspiration. Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, Pat Boone, and Eddie Cochran all recorded covers of his songs. Sometimes their imitations of his hits were comical for their blandness, though the Stones and the Beatles did his songs very convincingly - all too much so. The trouble was that their versions of his songs became more prominent and commercially successful than his were.

Yet Little Richard went on performing, for four-plus decades, surviving a period of doing every kind of drug, as he is seen declaring. (There is a wealth of clips of Richard himself here: his loud declarative humorous talk happily and properly dominates this film.) With his up-front, humorous, gay, strident personality, he also went on declaring that he was the king of rock and roll, and complaining that he was not given the recognition he deserved. It was true. When A rock and roll hall of fame was established and he was one of the founding members, tragically he was unable to attend the ceremony became he blacked out and was in a car crash. Finally, when he was over sixty, there was a big ceremonial event in which he was the lead performer. One of the talking heads breaks down and weeps in describing this event.

You may do so too. This film is exciting, eye-opening, and fun, but it is also sad. It is full of American cultural and social history, and the last ninety years have been turbulent, and not pretty. A must-see for all students of American musical and cultural history. (See the Wikipedia article, "Little Richard," for fuller biographical details. This is a rich film, but there is room for much more.)

Little Richard: I Am Everything, 101 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2023. It was shown at many other US and international festivals. US theatrical release in April, TV release Sept. 4. Now available on Max, Amazon Prime, and multiple other pay platforms. Metacritic rating: 81%.

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