Little Richard and the Truth About Rock and Roll’s Queer Origins

A new documentary celebrates a cultural revolution led by a man who was, at times, a traditionalist.

Black and white photo of Little Richard in a patterned vest and flashing peace signs
Magnolia Pictures

“What would it do to the American mythology of rock music to say that its pioneers were Black, queer people?” the ethnomusicologist Fredara Hadley asks in the new documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything, out Friday. It’s a valid question, and the film offers an exuberant answer. In order to tell the story of the pathbreaking piano-rocker whose work still pulses in roadside diners and on wedding dance floors, the director, Lisa Cortés, uses animated sparkles and montages of rainbow fringe and high heels. Along with Hall of Famers such as Mick Jagger, commentary comes from the ever-fabulous actor Billy Porter and a few Black scholars of gender, race, and the arts. They argue that “Tutti Frutti” was not just a hot song; it was a Molotov cocktail lobbed at the heteropatriarchy.

All of this may sound like a provocation, but it’s mostly an assertion of fact. In addition to popularizing the combo of chugging-train drum beats and lusty wails, Little Richard personally tutored the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and directly inspired James Brown and David Bowie. A wearer of eyeliner who variously described himself as gay or omnisexual over the years, he built upon a preexisting queer lineage. When Richard’s father threw him out of his Macon, Georgia, home at an early age, Richard was taken in by the owners of a queer-leaning nightclub. He’d soon learn from drag queens, bawdy chanteuses, and a few Black singers now legendary for defying gender norms: the gospel guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who brought Little Richard onstage for the first time; the bouffant-wearing Esquerita, who taught him to play piano; and the “Prince of the Blues,” Billy Wright, who inspired his love of makeup.

Little of this history is unknown or hidden. Indeed, the energy coursing through this essayistic documentary comes in large part from Richard’s own self-mythologizing. He often touted his own importance as the “architect,” rightful “king,” and “quasar”—brightest star—of rock and roll. He spoke matter-of-factly about sex and sexuality (he was also, he said, the “queen” of rock and roll). As it retells his rise, Cortés’s film suggests how so flamboyant a figure became widely beloved in the face of racism and homophobia: To some white audiences, a feminized Black man was less threatening than any other kind. The movie also explores how cultural appropriation—or “obliteration,” as the writer and sociologist Zandria Robinson calls it—long kept Richard from getting his due (recent years have begun to see broader recognition of the debt that Elvis and other white rockers owed him).

Really the film wants to argue for an inextricable, even metaphysical, connection between Richard’s impact and his identity. “Queerness is not just about sexuality but about a presence in a space that is different from what we require or expect—different from the norm,” Robinson says at one point. According to this framework, Richard’s musical breakthroughs had revolutionary social effects, inviting segregated and repressed audiences to integrate and loosen up. His example liberated Paul McCartney to scream and Jagger to shimmy, and made it possible for Lil Nas X and Miley Cyrus to simultaneously scandalize and seduce audiences today.

This view of Richard is inspiring and convincing. But it squares awkwardly with the fact that Richard, at various times throughout his life, aligned with conservative Christianity and renounced his past work. The first epiphany happened in 1957, when Richard witnessed what he believed to be apocalyptic omens while on tour. He then enrolled at a Seventh-day Adventist college in Alabama, where he reportedly told students that he would buy back and destroy any records of his that they owned. He would return to, and escape from, the secular musical world a few times in the decades to come. The final years of his life were spent ensconced in church life. His public speaking emphasized the incompatibility of rock and roll—and his formerly gay lifestyle—with the teachings of Jesus.

What happened? A few reasons for his religiosity seem apparent. As a kid, Richard dreamed of becoming a minister like his father. As Jagger notes in the documentary, if you have the idea that secular music is the devil’s music drilled into you during childhood, you’re going to have a complicated adulthood as a secular musician. Watching the film, it also becomes apparent that many of Richard’s Christian awakenings coincided with moments when the excesses of his rock-star life were especially pronounced: a long-haul tour in the ’50s, a period of heavy drug use in the ’70s.

What the documentary doesn’t note are the familiar, even poignant, dimensions of Richard’s seemingly shocking reversals. Many other iconoclastic musicians—Prince, Ye (formerly Kanye West), Bob Dylan—have, at various points, found God and begun reevaluating or neglecting their earlier work. The history of popular music is in part a history of bold people changing the world, being rewarded with riches, and then facing the question of how to survive burnout, addiction, and the waning of public affection. Endless rebellion is taxing and has, for many stars, proved fatal—is it that surprising for religion to beckon as a refuge? To a viewer of the film, Richard’s spiritual journey raises questions about him as a human, not a symbol. I wanted to understand his significance to the church communities he joined; I wanted to know whether those around him found him to be at peace in his later years.

The documentary, however, mostly treats Richard’s sanctified chapters as a disappointment, a counterrevolutionary subplot. Robinson notes the “harm” Richard caused when he started spouting homophobia. Sir Lady Java, a trans performer who was a good friend of Richard’s, says, “I feel he betrayed gay people ... But I do understand. You’re not strong enough to take it. I understand that.” “Harm” and “betrayed” aren’t overstating the case: As today’s legislative and cultural campaigns against queer rights show, what public figures say matters. Still, it’s hard not to also read a tinge of personal judgment in the movie’s appraisals. The scholar Jason King puts Richard’s trajectory this way: “He was very, very good at liberating other people through his example. He was not good at liberating himself.” The film sometimes takes an elegiac, near-tragic tone—which is a bit strange when you consider that Richard died at the ripe old age of 87, with his cultural renown secure and his energies having been devoted to personal salvation.

As the title I Am Everything hints, the film wants to do what Richard once did: make space for complex, unruly expression. But conflating personal identity with political projects, construing queerness so broadly that it becomes a synonym for subversive, sometimes flattens reality. Queer people can be revolutionaries, but they’re also negotiators, crowd-pleasers, survivors. How telling that the “Tutti Frutti” that changed the world was not the bawdy version that Richard originally wrote—“If it don’t fit, don’t force it”—but the one he allowed to be toned down by the songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie, who’s shown in full church-lady regalia in I Am Everything. Little Richard’s life was no tidy story of transcendence from his times and circumstances, because no one’s is. What he showed is that rock and roll, like queerness, is not a break from the past but a dance with it.