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Little Richard doc explores the rock 'n' roll icon's connection to queer culture

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A music legend gets a fresh look in the documentary "Little Richard: I Am Everything." It premieres tonight on CNN. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the film excels by focusing on the star's roots in queer culture, as well as his struggle with his connection to the culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG TALL SALLY")

LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) Well, long, tall Sally, she's built for speed. She got everything that Uncle John need, oh, baby.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: As a performer and personality, Little Richard rarely held back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD: Let it all hang out...

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARD: With the beautiful Little Richard from down in Macon, Ga.

DEGGANS: Especially when it came to the subject of his accomplishments and appeal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD: I want you all to know that I am the bronze Liberace. Shut up.

DEGGANS: But director Lisa Cortes' expansive film asks a poignant question about a pioneering performer often called the architect of rock 'n' roll. It's best phrased here by Juilliard School ethnomusicologist for Fredara Hadley.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LITTLE RICHARD: I AM EVERYTHING")

FREDARA HADLEY: What would it do to the American mythology of rock music to say that its pioneers were Black queer people?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUTTI FRUTTI")

RICHARD: (Singing) Wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom. Tutti frutti, oh, rooty (ph). Tutti frutti, oh, rooty. Tutti frutti, oh, rooty.

DEGGANS: For music fans, the film is a poignant reminder of just how good Little Richard was, especially in the 1950s and '60s. We see him captivate crowds with his percussive piano style and preacher's swagger, sweating through loads of pancake makeup with his pencil-thin mustache and serious pompadour hairstyle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCILLE")

RICHARD: (Singing) Lucille, you won't do your sister's will.

DEGGANS: We see his influence on everyone from Prince to the Beatles, from interviews with celebrities like Mick Jagger, Billy Porter and John Waters. Waters says as a youth, he even stole a record of Little Richard's hit "Lucille."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LITTLE RICHARD: I AM EVERYTHING")

JOHN WATERS: The first songs that you love that your parents hate is the beginning of the soundtrack of your life. And in my case, it was most definitely "Lucille."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCILLE")

RICHARD: (Singing) I asked my friends about her but all their lips were tight.

DEGGANS: Born Richard Penniman in Macon, Ga., in 1932, Little Richard was openly gay from a young age, kicked out of his family home by a father who expected him to be more masculine. Performing on the chitlin circuit of Black-centered clubs through the South, he worked early shows singing in drag, later learning his performing style and piano playing from other Black gay performers at the time, Billy Wright and Esquerita. And when one of his early recording sessions wasn't going well, he went to a nearby bar to blow off steam. He jumped on a piano there and played a song about sex. For the film, keyboardist and singer Corey Henry recreates that moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LITTLE RICHARD: I AM EVERYTHING")

CORY HENRY: (Singing) Wop-bop-a-loo-mop a'good hot damn. Tutti frutti, good booty.

DEGGANS: The song, with sanitized lyrics, of course, became Little Richard's first big hit. The film also delves into periods when he became devoutly religious, denouncing his life as a gay man and his success in rock 'n' roll. He saw those triumphs as encouraging the devil, but his baby boomer fans saw them as liberation from the strict mores of their parents. Here, one expert describes Little Richard singing gospel on the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon in 1983.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LITTLE RICHARD: I AM EVERYTHING")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When I hear his passionate singing at this time, it's hard to tell how much is running towards God versus running away from himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEONE WORSE OFF THAN I AM")

RICHARD: (Singing) But I realized...

DEGGANS: Little Richard died in 2020 at age 87. The film "Little Richard: I Am Everything" is a masterpiece and worthy tribute. It traces how the genre's earliest expressions of rock 'n' roll spirit were rooted in both queer culture in general and his specific experiences as a gender-bending gay man.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD GOLLY MISS MOLLY")

RICHARD: (Singing) Good golly, Miss Molly, sure like to ball. Good golly, Miss Molly, sure like to ball. When you're rocking and a-rolling, can't hear your mama call. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.