Revealing the black, queer origins of rock n’ roll and the complex genius of its conflicted originator, Little Richard, Lisa Cortés’ stirring documentary takes aim at the white-washed canon of popular music.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2023
Out of the raw materials of rhythm and blues, drag performance, gospel music and medicine show, Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard, created the template for rock‘n’roll. His first hit, ‘Tutti Frutti’, was released in 1955, the same year black teenager Emmett Till was lynched. He represented, as scholar Jason King puts it in the film, “a complete upheaval of the existing social system”. He took “all of this post-war aching, yearning, teenage horniness and desire to be erotically free, and put it into a musical form that people could feel.”
But his innovations would quickly be usurped and sanitised by a white-dominated music industry. “What would it do to the American mythology of rock music to say its pioneers were black queer people?” asks ethnomusicologist Fredara Hadley. Director Lisa Cortés explores both the evidence and the answer in a rock documentary that takes a refreshingly African-American angle on the rock‘n’roll myth.
Drawing on rich archives and fresh interviews, Cortés shows how Little Richard’s electrifying synthesis came about and the impact it had, with plenty of footage of the artist in his prime. Cortés illustrates the effects of racism on his career and Richard’s own conflicts around his queerness and religion, creating a complex story that is ultimately as much a tragedy as a triumph. — Nick Bollinger