In Lisa Cortés’ documentary “Little Richard: I am Everything,” the man behind the hit songs, big hair and flamboyant personality is examined. The 98-minute doc, which premieres Jan. 19 at Sundance, traces the path of Richard Penniman, also known as Little Richard, from 1930s Macon, Ga., through underground Black drag clubs to segregated concert halls and international fame. Little Richard, who died at the age of 87 in 2020, burst onto the music scene in the 1950s and ultimately transformed rock ’n’ roll. “His DNA is everywhere,” says Cortés, who used never-seen-before archival footage, as well as interviews with family, colleagues, musicians and historians to tell Little Richard’s story. The doc is the first nonfiction feature Cortés’ has directed on her own. (In 2020 she co-directed “All In: The Fight For Democracy” with Liz Garbus.) For over two decades, Cortés has served as a producer on narratives as well as docs including “Precious,” “The Woodsman” and most recently the doc “Invisible Beauty,” which is also premiering at Sundance. “Little Richard: I am Everything” was one of the last documentaries to be commissioned by CNN Films. Despite the production companies’ demise in 2022, the film will premiere on CNN and stream on HBO Max later this year.
What appealed to you about Little Richard’s story?
I was especially interested in not only looking at Richard, the icon, and his contributions to music, but also to culture as a transgressive figure. And then additionally there was this man who was born in the segregated South, who bucked so many norms, and at the same time was having an internal battle between the secular and the profane. So, when you look at all of those levels to interrogate, as a filmmaker, it just lent itself to so many ways to enter into the story.
In the film’s production notes, you said that his story and his struggles are more urgent than ever. Why?
Rock ’n’ roll, race and queerness are core to our culture, but also to our culture wars. I think that so many of the things that Richard approached and challenged we are still dealing with. The gender fluidity that Richard displayed isn’t new, and it wasn’t new then. It just wasn’t spoken of, and it wasn’t contextualized. But it seems that in our contemporary culture, some people are still not at ease with it.
Does the scripted content you work on share anything with the docs you work on?
The connective tissue is that I’m interested in hidden figures. I’m interested in the people that you think you know based on their outward appearance. As a filmmaker, I am committed to showing the complexity, richness and the value [behind that appearance] whether it’s an institution like the Apollo or an individual like Richard.
You worked closely with CNN Films to get this doc made. What do you make of the company’s dismantling?
It’s a tremendous loss. I have had the most amazing experience working with them. They are such incredible collaborators. I welcome that void being filled because it’s necessary.