Little Richard was not an easy documentary subject for filmmaker Lisa Cortés
Little Richard was a great musician and a true musical icon — but an unreliable narrator, filmmaker Lisa Cortés tells IndieWire.
When Little Richard died at the age of 87 in May 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, New York filmmaker Lisa Cortés found herself listening non-stop to his music, from classics like “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Lucille” and “Long Tall Sally,” to a wide range of surprising tributes from Bob Dylan to Dave Grohl.
“I heard his music everywhere and it made me very happy,” he told IndieWire. “Wait a minute,” he said to himself, “there was never a story, he never had the chance.” When he pitched his idea for a documentary following Little Richard with a twist—the last film offering a slightly supernatural reimagining of his music career—Bungalow Entertainment and Rolling Stone Films agreed to back him, along with executive producer Dee Rees.
After directing two short films and a music documentary (“The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion”), and co-directing the Oscar-nominated “All In: The Fight for Democracy” with Liz Garbus, Cortés wanted to take on more than just his story. Little Richard, but Richard Wayne Penniman. Born and raised in Macon, Georgia, one of 12 children, the music icon used his flamboyant personality—and his place as a black queer man—to change the history of music with his hard-hitting brand of rock ‘n roll.
He was revered by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; it was discovered by white artists (Elvis Presley and Pat Boone made more money with “Tutti Frutti” than Little Richard, he complained); and her flashy wigs, make-up and costumes planted the seeds for gender-bending artists such as David Bowie and Elton John.
“What I like about Little Richard,” said Cortés, “is that he is not monophonic, but multidimensional.” A transgressive figure whose music, performance and gender-fluidity made an impact that continues, influences culture and manifests itself in contemporary artists.”
Not only did “Little Richard: I Am Everything” earn a coveted spot in the documentary competition at Sundance, but it also sold theatrical rights to Magnolia Pictures (it’s out this week), pitched to CNN Documentary Films, and aired on then-No. HBO Max In a year when many worthy documentaries left Sundance unsold, “Little Richard” was the well reviewed the commercial hit of the documentary range.
Here’s how Cortés deviated from the traditional cradle-to-grave musical biography of Little Richard.
1. Add glitter.
On the field, Cortés tried to avoid documentary conventions and pursued “villain storytelling,” he said. “I wanted it to be a film documentary, not a TV one.” To this end, he added glittering motifs that hang in the air throughout the film. “It’s energy. At the beginning of the film, we establish that he is otherworldly, elemental, there is an energy that he introduces into the world through rock ‘n’ roll, which is why supernovas explode and the cosmos is revealed, because he is almost an alien figure who came here to bring this gospel,” he said. “But these sparkles are about the energy associated with art.”
2. Add live performances.
“From the beginning I talked about these dreamscapes of performances by contemporary artists John P. Kee, Valerie June and Cory Henry to be part of the storytelling,” he said, “because I wanted to break through the wall of what it is. is waiting for you with a music doc. Yes, it’s a cradle-to-grave story. But there are moments of possibility, achievement, and a bit of the supernatural that comes through. There are some great archival performances by Richard, but I also wanted the contemporary performances to bring it forward, to show that the past is a prologue to this moment, and these are the artists we’re living now.”
3. Counteract your unreliable narrator.
“I focused on Richard as the narrator of his story,” Cortés said. “I did a deep archive to see if we could find Richard’s voice over the years as he recounted these important moments of his journey. But I was also very deliberately opposed to what he said. Since he wasn’t always the most reliable narrator, I made sure to give him the microphone. But there were also people I interviewed who asked him during the storytelling.”
She continued, “For example, Richard says, ‘I put on makeup so I can perform in the South for white girls and not be a challenge.’ And of course homophobia is rampant, homosexuality is illegal. It doesn’t make sense that you’re doing this to protect yourself. So I like those cases where I’m like, “yes, Richard, you can tell the story the way you see it.” But we’re going to attack some of the ideas you’ve raised.”
4. Dig into her secret life.
“I wanted to find pictures of Richard as Princess Livonia, his suitor,” Cortés said, “but we couldn’t find them. But we stumbled upon a cache of images taken by a photographer of the underground black drag culture, very intimate images, the participants very open. And this is a part of our history that we haven’t even heard of. But it was a very important community for Richard when he was kicked out of his home, and it was a representation of these objects not only to the community that took him in, but to other people whose stories weren’t really being told.
5. Visit past friends and lovers.
Sometimes old fashioned shoe leather works. Cortés slipped a note under his door in Los Angeles to Little Richard’s love Lee Angel, who called him back and joined him for breakfast that day. Angel helped Cortés track down his old friend, Sir Lady Java.
“It’s a great discovery in this film, it’s so generous and wonderful,” said Cortés. “Sir Lady Java is the activist.” Richard goes on talk shows in the ’80s and says, “Yes, I was gay. I was one of the first gays, it was there. But in the 50s and 60s he never came out as gay. But surely Java is someone who knew him when he was gay and who can talk about what they shared through their youthful queerness because they probably met in ’57. So he’s someone who helps us understand his relationship with a community that he hasn’t talked about in enough depth.”
6. Make the musical connections.
“People knew it was associated with The Beatles, the image that surrounds them, and you can see such joy that they have to be with their idol,” Cortes said. “They break out of their shiny little suits.” When he goes to Hamburg, Richard is accompanied by a musician, a very young teenager named Billy Preston. Introduces Billy Preston to The Beatles. And as many of you know, Billy Preston is considered by some to be the fifth Beatle. Yeah, so Richard is the connective tissue of many artists. Jimi Hendrix played in his band. He brought James Brown to Macon to record his first hit. He is the catalyst and inspiration for so many of these incredible rock and roll artists. And that part of the story hasn’t been told.”
7. Analyze the layers of personality.
There was a dichotomy between Little Richard’s music and the person he portrayed and his perception by the music establishment. “When you’re on these talk shows, it’s almost like a comic book, a cartoon,” Cortés said. “Unanimous.” And even if he says, “I discovered this, I discovered that,” it almost feels like ranting when we’re not able to better understand the cultural context in which he encounters these artists and feeds their vision. Anytime someone presents themselves as a monolithic personality, we don’t see the layers of their infrastructure. I would think of it as an architectural rendering where you cut the building in half and see all the intricacies of the infrastructure of the building. Richard’s infrastructure and rock ‘n roll is what we see when we step back with this larger perspective that goes beyond these forward-thinking, highly performative relationships with the various hosts he encountered.”
8. Find the quotes.
“I have the dream role in this movie,” said Cortés. “I wanted everyone because we have people through the archive. In a great moment, Paul McCartney talks about what it meant to him as a child and how Little Richard songs were performed.” When the film was almost finished, Cortés received a call from Little Richard’s ex-wife, Ernestine Penniman. “We were told he passed away, we couldn’t find him. We have audio interviews with Ernestine. We’re done with the film, we’re fine-tuning and tinkering, the submission deadline has passed. And that’s when it surfaced.”
9. Keep it short.
If you submit a film to CNN Films, it must be 98 minutes long. “So you step back into your 98 minutes,” Cortés said. “And the biggest challenge for me was finding a place to sit the poignancy, especially in recent years, and especially him at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame when he’s conducting Otis Redding. And he’s totally in the moment, but also very sad. So that’s one I’d love to sit with for a moment. But our editors did an incredible job of giving us the intent of the scene and the most powerful moments.”
10. And keep the conversation going.
“I’m excited that this film will be in places that challenge the historical narratives that people try to hold back,” Cortés said, “and show the counterpoint of real history, real lived history, by black and queer people. . Who are the important Americans.”
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