Little Richard was nothing if not complex. A Black “architect of rock ‘n’ roll” who was overshadowed by the white artists he inspired. A hitmaker who saw white artists get paid buckets full of cash for covering his songs while he was denied royalties. A flamboyant performer onstage and a sometimes hedonist off who repeatedly denounced secular music in the name of God. An openly gay man who went in and out of the closet throughout his life.
Those contradictions are at the heart of director Lisa Cortés’s new documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything, which hits theaters this week. Here’s what the critics are saying about film.
Following its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, reviews of Little Richard: I Am Everything were rapturous. The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney called the film “exhilarating.”
“Excess and ecstasy are as good a way as any to describe the charge that pulsates throughout Cortés’ film, whether it’s chronicling the lows or the giddy highs,” Rooney wrote. “The latter, however, are the ultimate takeaway in this spirited account of an artist who remains unparalleled in American popular music.”
Variety’s Owen Gleiberman wrote that Cortés had directed the film “with supreme love and insight.”
“It’s a movie that understands, from the inside out, what a great and transgressive artist [Little Richard] was, how his starburst brilliance shifted the whole energy of the culture — but also how the astonishing radical nature of what he did, from almost the moment it happened, got shoved under the rug of the official narrative of rock ‘n’ roll,” Gleiberman wrote. “To watch this jubilant and essential documentary is to realize he had a talent that no one, least of all himself, could contain.”
Many reviews, like the film itself, focus on the details of Little Richard’s life: the injustices he faced in the burgeoning business of rock music and the complex legacy he left behind when he died in 2020. But they also note the directorial flourishes and risks Cortés takes to tell the singer’s story, including recreations of famous performances starring contemporary musicians and celestial imagery meant to represent Little Richard’s meteoric impact on culture.
“Cortés tries a few things to upend the humdrum rock-doc template,” writes Ben Kenigsberg for The New York Times. “At the end of the day, though, I Am Everything is content to be a thorough, energetic, largely chronological appraisal, more interested in saluting a musical legend who shook things up than in shaking up conventions itself.”
AV Club critic Lauren Coates writes that “it can feel as if Cortes is not content to merely rely on the performer’s merits to sell the audience on Richard.” Still, she writes, the film is “an occasionally fanciful but insightful documentary that acknowledges Richard’s unsung brilliance and his tumultuous personal life.”
Little Richard’s legacy as a Black queer artist is another major aspect of the film. THR’s Rooney called the film’s focus on the singer’s status as “an early celebrity gay icon, a key point that’s perhaps this documentary’s greatest strength.”
“The documentary takes time to explore his complicated legacy as a queer icon: though his visibility opened the door for so many others, Richard’s repeated rejections and condemnations of the queer community are undeniably disheartening,” writes AV Club’s Coates. “Still, Little Richard: I Am Everything manages to find the proper balance between grace and respect towards Richard’s legacy and valid criticism of his more unsavory views or ill-conceived exploits.”
Writing for Rolling Stone, Marlowe Stern concludes that though Little Richard may “never truly receive the credit or respect he’s owed, Little Richard: I Am Everything marks a step in the right direction.”