No Lil Nas X without Little Richard: Director of a new doc talks the queer icon’s enduring legacy

No Lil Nas X without Little Richard: Director of a new doc talks the queer icon’s enduring legacy
Little Richard performing in 2007. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Anna Bleker

“The first song that you love that your parents hate is the beginning of the soundtrack of your life.”

For millions of people around the world, that song came from Little Richard. 

That quote comes from gay filmmaker John Waters, who professes his love for the icon in the trailer for the new documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything.

The new documentary, directed by Lisa Cortés, explores Richard’s life, loves, and legacy in breathtaking detail, delicately exploring his struggle to balance his homosexuality with his religious upbringing, and how his art changed the world for the better.

With songs like “Tutti Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly”, the once-in-a-lifetime artist is often credited for birthing rock ‘n roll. Often imitated but never replicated, Richard was discredited and outright stolen from for decades before his contributions to the genre were sealed into the Hall of Fame. 

“For many of us, we know little Richard on a talk show saying, ‘Shut up.’ We know him singing the Rubber Ducky song on Sesame Street. But Little Richard is so much more,” Cortés tells LGBTQ+ Nation. “He is not a comic foil, he is not monolithic. He had a rich history. His cultural contributions are deep.” 

Today, much of Richard’s queer history has been lost on younger generations. How he managed to be an openly gay Black man in the 1950s, rising at the same time as Emmet Till’s murder, is a marvel. Richard is a diamond in the rough. 

“It’s about self-invention,” Cortés explains. “It is about not letting other people define you, and that is so important for us as individuals, and especially for us as artists, to lean into the power of what that can do, that agency for your art.”

Waters makes an appearance in the doc alongside Pose star Billy Porter and rock legends Mick Jagger and Tom Jones, who both credit Richard for influencing their careers. The film excavates so much of Richard’s long-forgotten history, with decades-old photos, interviews, and conversations with his family and friends. We see a photo of Richard performing in drag and even hear from John Lennon. The Beatles actually opened for Richard on his UK tour. 

Little Richard’s presence, energy, and spirit paved the way for today’s artists. He lives on through them.

“The past is still very present thematically in this film,” Cortés points out. “Richard is the initiator of so many things.” Without him, she continued, “you’re not gonna have Prince. If you don’t have Little Richard, you’re not gonna have Lil Nas X. If you don’t have Richard, you’re not gonna have Harry Styles.”

“Now each of these artists are brilliant and amazing in their own way, but what is it that Richard brought? Richard brought boldness, innovation, style, music, gender fluidity. He unleashes this energy that shifts culture. We are the beneficiaries of what that energy did.”

Right now, Black queer history is more important than ever, when our community is under attack from all angles. 

“We cannot allow for the criminalization of drag performances, or laws that tell us that African-American history can’t be taught or these books need to be removed from libraries,” says Cortés. “This history, this American history, is part of a unique tapestry, and it is being erased. People seek to erase it. But it is so important in informing the contributions of all of us.” 

Cortés says it best. “Our history frees us all.”

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