Inside the new Little Richard documentary that explores the rock icon's queerness and the X-rated origins of 'Tutti Frutti'

"Little Richard: I Am Everything" director talks about telling the life story of the pioneering singer/songwriter.

The new documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything recounts the life story of the pioneering rock icon. (Photos courtesy of Getty Images).
The new documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything recounts the life story of the pioneering rock icon. (Photos courtesy of Getty Images).

Rock 'n' roll didn't start with a bang — it started with a wop-bop-a-loo-bop a lop-bom-bom. That's the propulsive beat that drives "Tutti Frutti," the 1955 chart-topping hit that made Richard Penniman, aka Little Richard, one of the original rock gods. But as a new documentary about the late singer-songwriter reveals, the earliest versions of "Tutti Frutti" weren't safe for radio play thanks to X-rated lyrics about anal sex that Little Richard re-wrote prior to recording the song for the first time.

"I love that revelation," Little Richard: I Am Everything director Lisa Cortés tells Yahoo Entertainment. "And I love the montage of images that that illustrates how explosive the unleashing of that particular song was for Richard." (Little Richard died in 2020 at age 87.)

Premiering in theaters and on most VOD services on April 21 following its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January, Cortés's film brings the origin of "Tutti Frutti" to life — a story that's previously been recounted on the page in rock history tomes. Born in 1932 into a churchgoing family in Macon, Ga., Penniman left home as a teenager to pursue a career in the so-called "devil's music." Touring the country on the Chitlin' Circuit — an extensive network of clubs and performances spaces friendly to Black and queer performers during an era when segregation was still very much in effect — the young artist encountered other outsider artists who challenged the racial and gender norms of the time.

Little Richard himself frequently performed in drag as Princess LaVonne during those formative years, and had sexual relationships with both men and women throughout his life. "Tutti Frutti" originated in the early '50s as a ribald song that he only performed in live venues to the delight of audiences. As outlined in I Am Everything, the original lyrics were explicitly queer, with lines like: "Tutti Frutti, good booty/If it don't fit, don't force it/You can grease it, make it easy."

Needless to say, Little Richard knew he couldn't commit those lyrics to wax when it came time to record "Tutti Frutti." Instead, he replaced those hilariously graphic references to anal sex with the more PG-rated "Tutti Frutti, aw rooty," and that's the version that audiences heard going forward as the iconoclastic singer crossed over into mainstream pop culture, appearing on hit television variety shows and in feature films like The Girl Can't Help It.

As Cortés's film notes, the song's rough edges were further sanded away when white artists like Pat Boone did their own cover versions that outsold Little Richard's own recording. Over the years, Boone has said that Little Richard recognized that his own celebrity was aided by the success of that "Tutti Frutti" cover. At the same time, I Am Everything also reveals how its subject came to resent the way his pioneering work had been appropriated by white singers.

Asked whether she reached out to Boone during the making of the documentary, Cortés says that timing ultimately didn't allow for an interview with the now-88-year-old singer. "I felt that the archival materials [that featured him] created a visual conversation that was in keeping with the themes that I'm exploring in the film."

Cortés also suggests that the evolution of "Tutti Frutti" from an unapologetically queer tune into a straight rock song mirrored Little Richard's own complex relationship with his sexuality. The singer would go through periods where he publicly renounced his queerness — most notably during the early days of the AIDS crisis in the late '70s — sometimes earning the ire of the LGBTQ community.

"The backstory of the song is even more moving and funny when you know [his story]," the director explains, adding that she did find footage of Little Richard performing at an AIDS benefit later on that she wasn't able to include in the film. "The point at which he denounces his queerness comes after the death of several friends and then his brother, which happened before there was a name for AIDS. It's all a part of this roller coaster that Richard is on in terms of trying to navigate being a saint and what he considers a sinner."

Cortés credits one of Little Richard's lifelong friends, LGBTQ activist Sir Lady Java, with offering the most profound assessment of the push-pull with queerness that followed him throughout his life. "She says that she understands that Richard wasn't strong enough," the director notes. "But he still gave her strength to go on stage dressed as a woman and live her life unapologetically."

PARK CITY, UTAH - JANUARY 23: Lisa Cortes attends the 26th Annual SAGindie Filmmakers Luncheon At Sundance at Cafe Terigo on January 23, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Fred Hayes/Getty Images for SAGindie)
Little Richard: I Am Everything director Lisa Cortés at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo: Fred Hayes/Getty Images for SAGindie)

You have the benefit of making a movie about a public figure who left a lot of archival material behind. But Little Richard was also someone who changed the details of his story in the public record. How did you assemble an objective timeline out of his sometimes contradictory statements?

Well, there's the known history: the day he was born, the day he died and the seminal moments in his career. The structure of the film was to give Richard the mic and the agency to assemble archival materials so that he could narrate his story. Yet at the same time, I knew he wasn't always the most reliable narrator, and that's why we have a second tier of voices — family, friends, artists that knew him and scholars — who are providing context for what he's saying and, in certain cases, even questioning him.

I love the dialogue that happens when, for example, Richard is saying, "In the '50s, I had to wear make-up and look super-effeminate as a way to deal with racism," and then you have [Yale University professor] Tavia Nyong'o going, "In the '50s, homophobia was rampant and people were getting killed for that, so [his statement] doesn't make sense." I love that immersive approach to storytelling where we as an audience are asking questions of Richard.

The film explores the queerness that was pervasive in the South when Richard was a young man. We're now seeing Southern politicians crack down on gatherings like drag shows. What's it like to be releasing this film at a time when we're seeing these kinds of real world headlines?

It was important to me that this film not just be in the past tense, but be in conversation with the present. In the film, [Georgetown University professor] Zandria Robinson says that the South is the home of all things queer and non-normative and her positioning of that frames a lot of the contradictions in Richard's early life. We learn about him being kicked out of his home and being taken in at Anne's Tic Toc in Macon, Georgia, which was a queer bar that both Black and white people went to in the '40s. So there have always been these spaces where queerness has been, and I love that this film is coming out now, because it's rooted in history and it's a part of history that has to be told and cannot be sidelined or silenced.

Little Richard prepares to play Wrigley Field in a 1956 photo featured in the documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything. (Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
Little Richard prepares to play Wrigley Field in a 1956 photo featured in the documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything. (Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

What do you think Richard would have made of this renewed push to ban drag shows in the South?

It's hard to say what Little Richard would have said now. But I think if we go back in time and asked Princess Lavonne — his drag persona as a young person — I think he would have welcomed that this was a space that was provided to him where audiences supported his performance. But, you know, there's documentation of drag in this country going back to the late 1800s. And if we wanted to get super-meta, back in Shakespeare's times, men performed women's roles in drag. So this didn't just start happening in the 1980s.

The film also wrestles with the cultural appropriation question, and it's interesting to watch Richard's own evolution in that area. When he's hanging out with the Beatles in the early '60s, he seems delighted that these British lads are using his moves. But later on in his life, he expresses anger about the way his music was appropriated by white artists.

Richard was quixotic: He might say one thing and do another. When he's on the Dick Clark show and Clark asks him what he thinks about all these artists having success [with his music], he'll say, "I'm really happy about it; it's great that they've brought my music to these different audiences." But it's almost like he's not happy. There's a certain caginess in the way he answers, because he obviously can't say on a national platform: "I'm not happy that these white artists are seen as the face of rock 'n' roll." It's poignant that he's not able to fully express [those feelings] until much later. And when he does, it's almost like he's been swallowing this bile for too long, and he feels that the appropriation has led to an erasure of his true contributions to rock 'n' roll. That was very painful and I think it leads to him railing against it later on.

UNITED STATES - JULY 24:  AMERICAN BANDSTAND - Dick Clark - 7/24/64, Dick Clark (left, with guest Little Richard holding a picture of the Beatles) hosted
Dick Clark interviews Little Richard on a 1964 episode of American Bandstand about his friendship with The Beatles. (Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

You interview Mick Jagger for the movie, and he mentions that he took some of his moves from Little Richard. Do you think he would consider that cultural appropriation or is it just homage in his mind?

I think it's very obvious in my conversation with Mick Jagger how much he was indebted to Black music. Not only did he adore Little Richard, he adored Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He's still listening to their music, and so is Keith [Richards] as he told us. He is especially attuned to who he learned from and built upon, and that's what I loved about the conversation that we had. It was very candid, and he [recognized] that Richard is an originator and we're beholden to him.

How do think the legacy of Richard's comments about appropriation are reflected now on social media? Black creators on TikTok, for example, often say they don't receive credit for their content.

When it comes to creativity, it's very difficult to have that copyright. And there is an unfortunate pattern of Black cultural creators' work not being valued and being usurped and stripped of its blackness. That is historically something that has happened and, and it continues to happen.

It's interesting to me to see footage of Little Richard in his later years when he's appearing on Full House and in national commercials. It's such a contrast with his younger, more rebellious self. What was his perspective on entering that kind of family friendly pop culture arena as an older man?

Richard was a great entertainer, and he wanted to have as big a career as Elvis: stage, movies, television and so on. So he really relished being on Full House and being welcomed onto that set. We have this beautiful behind the scenes footage we couldn't incorporate into the film that John Stamos shared with us where he and Richard had this long jam session.

John is a huge rock 'n' roll fan, so he really loved communing with Richard and Richard loved being featured on that platform. It's also funny, because not only are the Olsen twins in that scene, but it also features a young Jurnee Smollett. She's the actress who says, "This is my Uncle Richard." It's fun seeing these young artists engaging with him and dancing in that behind the scenes footage.

Religion was a big part of his life from childhood on. How did he wrestle with that as the country grew increasingly polarized, especially within religious circles?

Richard often said, "My greatest love is with my savior and with Jesus and God." It's an interesting thing where he never denounces his relationship to God, he just doesn't think he can have one when he is living a rock 'n' roll queer lifestyle. It's an internal tension: that psychological dialogue of: "I want to live this lifestyle, but my understanding of my faith says I can't. I still have my faith and I still love God. I'm just challenged by myself."

And that contradiction starts early with his father who was a preacher, but also owned a club and sold bootleg liquor. So Richard is seeing those contradictions and dichotomies in his everyday life. The constant for him is that he loves God — he just doesn't know how God can love him when he's in a space that is ungodly.

Little Richard: I Am Everything premieres Friday, April 21 in theaters.