Courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

The Michigan Daily film writers love to watch and discuss films at the cutting edge of storytelling and there is no place better to do so than the Sundance Film Festival. After two years attending the festival only online, writers and editors for the Film Beat have trudged through snow and taken planes, trains and automobiles to arrive at Park City, Utah. Our coverage will include the premiers of dramas, romances, documentaries and everything in between. Welcome to our discussion on films made with Oscar winners and first-time filmmakers alike.

Elvis Presley’s appropriation of Black artists’ work has long felt like a fact everyone knows. Few, however, know the history, details and names behind the work — it might be mentioned during conversations on the history of rock ‘n’ roll with no further discussion about the personal effects this had on Black creators. “Little Richard: I Am Everything” seeks to change this narrative.

Learning about rock ‘n’ roll musician Little Richard’s life was like riding a roller coaster — hit repeatedly with ups, downs, twists and turns. The documentary keeps an energetic pace, informing the viewer about Richard’s life while staying colorful and fast-moving. Richard Wayne Penniman was born in 1932 in Macon, Georgia with a limp. He was mocked for dressing in his mother’s clothing and hated by his own father, a pastor at the local church. He started singing in his church choir, inspired by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whom he saw perform at a young age. After his father kicked him out of the house, Richard traveled the Chitlin Circuit during the late 1940s, meeting performers like Billy Wright, an openly gay musician, and Esquerita, an energetic piano player. These artists inspired Richard, and he synthesized their work into his own flamboyant style of open queerness, a flashy stage presence and erotic topics for his songs; around these artists, he was comfortable accepting his queerness. 

Richard started seeing success in the ’50s when DJs played his music on radio stations. Then he was hit with a major music industry roadblock: white musicians like Elvis and Pat Boone were outselling his music as their own. The documentary is quick to draw attention to the racist reality of a black man having his work stolen by white performers for their profit. Despite this, his Richard’s genderqueer act continued to draw attention, leading to financial success which, in turn, led to drug use and a love of orgies. Then, in 1957, he turned to Christianity, declaring his music and gayness sinful. From then on, Richard flipped between his music career and Christianity, trying to balance both with years of trauma incurred as a Black, Queer artist in the segregated south. 

There are many things we can learn from Richard’s life, many of which aren’t inherently wrong. He was a man of contradictions: a religious zealot that constantly sinned, a gay icon that turned his back on the community and an originator of an entire music genre that wasn’t properly recognized for nearly half a century.

However, the documentary’s editing feels uncomfortable, letting Richard’s story tell itself. Instead of giving each person who knew or was influenced by Richard time to contribute to a cohesive story, sentence fragments from different speakers are cut together to form a new phrase on multiple occasions. The pacing of these moments is jarring and distracts from the story. A barrage of stock photo images occurs not once, but twice, in a misguided attempt to elevate the story by showing how deeply in love Richard was with life. This attempt utterly fails, making them acutely aware of the documentary’s presence in the story, instead forcing a disconnect between Richard and the viewer and making them acutely aware of the documentary’s presence in the story. Deep emotions would rise up from my stomach while watching a recorded speech of Richard chastising the music industry, only for the poorly timed editorializing to squash those emotions.

This is not to say that the commentary from modern-day Black and Queer artists was bad throughout the documentary. Spotlights on performers who Richard inspired, like Billy Porter, were moving. Interviews with Richard’s bandmates were funny. When Black historians presented testimonials, they were eye-opening. The documentary presents such a depth of knowledge and admiration for Richard that by the end of the film, my annoyance at the editing felt less like a stab wound to the film and more like a mosquito bite.

“Little Richard” ends not by focusing on the dark parts of Richard’s life, but on the beautiful. We see only a fraction of the artists inspired by Richard, from David Bowie to Prince, all the way to Harry Styles. While we are told in no uncertain terms that the appropriation of his work by non-Black, non-Queer performers can be tantamount to the erasure of his work, Richard’s influence will be felt for generations to come. We just have to not forget the man himself, Richard Wayne Penniman, along the way.

Film Beat Editor Zach Loveall can be reached at zloveall@umich.edu.