Little Richard left this mortal coil in 2020, but tonight the architect of rock’n’roll is coming to shake up the Sundance Film Festival.
Directed by Park City vet Lisa Cortés, Little Richard: I Am Everything premieres at 9 PM MST at the Library Center Theatre as one of the Robert Redford founded fest’s opening night films. Commissioned last year by the now shrinking CNN Films, the 98-minute documentary sees the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning producer take on a new role as solo director.
“I remember when I was pitching this film to sell it, what was so interesting for me is it wasn’t a three-act structure, but it was this pendulum,” Cortés says of the probing project that is the U.S. Documentary competition category. “It was this push-pull throughout his life that he had to navigate, and it led to so much complexity. It contributed to the kinds of music, whether it’s the great gospel music or the rock and roll or the gospel rock and roll.”
Double dipping her Sundance presence this year as a producer on the Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng directed Invisible Beauty documentary, All In: The Fight For Democracy co-director Cortés clearly hasn’t lost any of the sharp backbeat that has long defined her work. To that end, the filmmaker chatted with me about her aims and approach with I Am Everything, snagging some big names for the film and taking some big swings for her wide ranging examination of a true American original.
DEADLINE: Quite the shift in subject matter for you from Stacey Abrams and American democracy in All In to the late great Little Richard, at least on the surface. What drew you to his story?
CORTÉS:: There’s so much to look at.
He is more…we know the icon. We know the one joke Shut Up! We know Tutti Frutti, but I wanted to peel the onion. I wanted to interrogate, through his words, the journey that he went on in the context of changing culture. You know, as a transgressive figure, he has a ripple effect on music and culture, and at the same time, as an individual, he’s going through multiple challenges and changes, and like, oh my god, that’s so Rich. Nobody’s done it. Bring it on.
DEADLINE: With a personality and legacy so large as Little Richard’s, was there a guiding principal for you for the film?
CORTÉS: I wanted to give him the agency to tell his story, but you know, I think as we went through the footage, it was like, there were moments that are just so genius because nobody could get away with saying things the way that he did or had such a finely-attuned, colorful way of throwing shade.
At the same time, Or you know, I was just thinking this morning about Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” which uses “Keep-A-Knockin’”, which is the one song that I wanted to have in the film and never could figure out how to do it, But how many people know Led Zeppelin, worship at the altar of Led Zeppelin, love “Rock and Roll” and don’t know that that hit song is modeled after the drums, rhythmically and even the lyrics as an ode to Rock and Roll on Little Richard’s “Keep-A-Knockin”? As, we say in the film, his DNA is everywhere.
DEADLINE: You strike a very active balance in I Am Everything with high-profile fans like Mick Jagger and lesser known scholars and activists, and then all the footage over the decades of the man himself. No voiceover. Why did you choose to approach the film like that?
CORTÉS:: In terms of the structural integrity of the story, it all begins with Richard.
I and my incredible archival team and editors spent a lot of time, before we started on the film itself, doing a very deep dive to hear his voice through the years and how it changes, you know? He’s not the most reliable storyteller, and so…
DEADLINE: I mean, Lisa, that’s, like, an understatement …
CORTÉS: Right, but you know, Dominic, it’s like, okay, how does he tell it now, but what does he keep coming back to as seminal moments in his life? And then, you know, whenever I work on a film as a director, I’m like, what are the voices that I want to use to inform the conversation that I’m having with my subject? So, I knew I wanted the artist.
I wanted Mick Jagger, because I thought Mick Jagger is such an interesting person in terms of being in a bar band. Opening for Little Richard for 30 days, and not only being so exuberant in his love of Little Richard and giving homage to what he got from black artists, but also a superfan, as am I, of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Then, there was my scholars.
I, you know, as a closet historian, am always reading, and I wanted to select some really amazing black and queer scholars that people have not seen before. Individuals who I thought had such beautiful insight to the music, but also the cultural context. A context in which all of this is taking place and is changing norms and is injecting so much into how we live and navigate in the world today and don’t even know, you know, that the seed was planted with Richard.
DEADLINE: I hope you take this the right way. In many ways, I found this the most political film that you’ve made so far…
CORTÉS: Well, it is, because I am connected to all of these worlds intimately. I am so informed by the power of being an outlier and going against the norm to speak your truth.
DEADLINE: To that, there is a lot of discussion in the film about what I can only term as his own battles with himself and with his faith. At the very end, near the end of his life, there’s a scene with Richard talking about rock and roll is not right with God. For you, , how were some of those discussions about him and the complexities of him as a person, as well as an icon? How did you navigate some of those? Because they’re very tricky ground.
CORTÉS: Well, I think the thing is, with Richard, he never loses his faith. That’s the thing. He just doesn’t know how to be a man of faith and be a queer man of faith.
So, that’s the struggle that is inherent in his journey, and I think I had looked at Richard as chapters. You know, there’s young Richard, young drag Richard. There is the Richard of the Tutti Frutti explosion, which is not only for him as an individual, but it is a cultural one connecting with the teenagers, and then there was that retrenchment when he goes to Australia.
So, he’s got this pendulum.
I remember when I was pitching this film to sell it, what was so interesting for me is it wasn’t a three-act structure, but it was this pendulum. It was this push-pull throughout his life that he had to navigate, and it led to so much complexity. It contributed to the kinds of music, whether it’s the great gospel music or the rock and roll or the gospel rock and roll. So, it becomes, like, you know, he’s not just about Shut Up! He’s not one-dimensional. He’s not monolithic. You know, he is an innovator, he’s a revolutionary, and he’s deeply conflicting.
DEADLINE: As someone who grew up with his music and a father and uncles who worshipped at the Church of Little Richard, he was always so much more than that snap of shut up…
CORTÉS: Well, you’re really lucky. You’re really lucky that you that education. I will say that, for some of the people who worked on the film, that was their only introduction to him. They only knew about him on Full House, on Pee-Wee, on talk shows when he was doing the circuit where he would lean into that. So, that became really interesting for me, because I knew the music, but I learned that there was a bunch of people who only knew him as a of one-note comic foil.
DEADLINE: Did that become an issue in terms of your list of potential interviewees?
CORTÉS: Let me tell you something about it. Here’s the thing, there are some artists that you would expect to be in this film, younger artists who will go unnamed, When I got nos, I’m like, wait a minute. I’m getting all these other big people. What I learned is that some of these younger artists, they don’t know. They don’t know the history, and so they don’t want to go on camera talking about something that they have no knowledge of.
DEADLINE: On the flipside of that, there were all these megastars from the heyday of rock’n’roll who could have taken the time to record a Little Richard cover or two to put some money in his bank account and more of a spotlight on his work and influence…
CORTÉS: I think that there are certain artists, like Elton John, who did, and I really can’t speak to what we would’ve liked to have heard, But I will say that for more than a few, their reverence and how they carve time out of their busy schedule to support this film was fantastic.
DEADLINE: Like Niles Rodgers and Jagger?
CORTÉS: You know, the funny thing with Mick Jagger, I was told, you’ve got 20 minutes, and I literally got a call on a Friday, and they said, you’re in New York, right? Can you get to London by Tuesday for Mick?
I had been chasing him for a long time, and I said, I’m going to the airport right now, and they said, oh, and by the way, you only have 20 minutes. So, I get there, and we set up. Mick comes in. He goes, oh, let’s have a chat first, and I thought it was so interesting. He wanted to hear where I was coming from with this film before we even started. We start the interview. We’re at the 20-minute mark, and I said, listen, you know, I’m reverential that you have 20 minutes.
He goes, no, no, we got more to talk about, and he kept chatting, and then, after an hour, he goes, Lisa, do you have everything you need? And I’m like, yeah, I’m good.
In reality, in the first 15 minutes, I made certain I had what I needed, but you know, I think that that speaks a lot to him and his feelings about Richard.
DEADLINE: How so?
CORTÉS: I think we get to certain points in our life, and we all look back and give homage in all different kinds of ways to the people who helped us, you know, achieve monumental places in our career.
DEADLINE: Speaking of careers, last year we wrote about your deal with Blue Ant. So, I wanted to know, where are things at with your adaption of Mother Lode: The 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop?
CORTÉS: We are getting close to a deal on that, which is very exciting. I have a slate of 20 projects, and I’ll have some interesting news to share about another partner who’s coming into the world. And, I have another film at Sundance this year called Invisible Beauty that Naomi Campbell’s in, that I am producing
DEADLINE: This isn’t the first time you’ve been at Sundance as a producer but it is the first time you are here as a solo director. What’s that shift in POV like?
CORTÉS: Oh my god, it’s everything. I mean, first of all, we’re in competitions. We’re in the US Doc competition, among so many people’s works that I love.
You know, when I was at Sundance with Precious, it was producing, or with The Woodsman, and I’ve had tremendous success as a producer at Sundance, but to be there as a director, with a film that I think is so necessary…
DEADLINE: How so?
CORTÉS: It’s bigger than Richard. You know, for me, it’s about culture wars that are still going on.
These culture wars that want to recreate history as we know it to be as a means of dividing us. I mean, when you talk about the politics of this film, I want this film to be seen as an antidote to weaponization that is dividing our country and dividing us in across the world. So, as a director, to be honored by Sundance, to premiere my film there and to have a platform to speak about the man, the music, the politics, but also our culture is like the gift of a lifetime.
DEADLINE: But also, it’s so beautiful how you pay tribute to his bravery. This man who was Black, queer, outlandish in Eisenhower America …
CORTÉS: Well, you know, it’s in spending time with him that I fell in love with how this man from Macon, Georgia…and I always say we should play the Macon, Georgia drinking game when you watch this film.
DEADLINE: Oh my god, you’d get loaded in the first 15 minutes.
CORTÉS: Right? But Macon, Georgia.
DEADLINE: It’s his thing, isn’t it? It’s his intro. I always thought that became a little bit of a shade throwing at James Brown.
CORTÉS: Yeah, because he’s planting the flag. Remember, he brought James to Macon to record his hit. He put James on the road as himself when he went to Hollywood. I mean, that’s one of the stories we couldn’t get into. But this is about this man from Macon, Georgia declared himself to the world in a time and place that did not allow that kind of agency, and he declared himself in sequins and mascara and a drawn-on little mustache.
If that ain’t brave, I don’t know what is.
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