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Lisa Cortés on her film exploring Little Richard's legendary rock'n'roll legacy


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John Yang: A new documentary, "Little Richard: I am Everything" tells the story of one of rock and roll's founding stars. It premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. That's where NewsHour co-anchor Amna Nawaz sat down with the director Lisa Cortes. It's part of our arts and culture series Canvas.

Amna Nawaz: The Rollicking Innuendo filled Tootie Fruity first sent Little Richard rocking across American airwaves in 1955. Born Richard Penneman, 23 years earlier in Macon, Georgia.

Little Richard became known for his explosive stage presence and a larger than life persona.

A new documentary, Little Richard: I am Everything by filmmaker Lisa Cortes, explores the impact of the iconic musician.

Lisa Cortes, Director, "Little Richard: I Am Everything": What I've done in the film is to actually present him as stardust, as someone who's like a supernova from another planet that just poom, burst and all this stardust comes to the earth. And that's like the essence of Richard and part of my thesis that we all have a little bit of his DNA in us.

Amna Nawaz: That DNA, she says, is most clear in our music. One of rock and roll's founding fathers, Little Richard bridged the worlds of rhythm and blues, gospel and soul, with showmanship that was all his own.

Tony Newman, Drummer: From the balcony, we hear I am an Adam mom, eyes wide open, and a cape and he jumps off the balcony, ran out to the stage. And I was rocket (inaudible). I wasn't of this earth anymore.

Amna Nawaz: His performance was rooted in both black and queer tradition. Kicked out of his home as a teen for being gay, Little Richard found a safe space in a local speakeasy.

Lisa Cortes: Then he begins to find his other family. He finds his tribe. He goes on the road and performs as a drag queen, Princess Lavone. So, it's a really special way that he comes into the world.

Amna Nawaz: His energy and music went on to inspire generations of performers.

Lisa Cortes: The Rolling Stones, who are a bar band that opened for him for 30 days in a row. And as Mick Jagger so lovingly shared, he's like, I sat there on the side of the stage for 30 days and learned that I could own a stage and I could be performative because of Little Richard.

Amna Nawaz: A then little known band called The Beatles toured with him in 1962.

Lisa Cortes: Little Richard is the king of shade and one of the best lines in the film is when he's talking about The Beatles and he says, ain't nobody know them but their mothers. I mean, it's like, but wait a minute, there's a Beatles. You know, every great artist brings something on their own. But every great artist also samples a little bit from somebody who came before them.

Amna Nawaz: But many white artists simply copied his work wholesale, often with great success.

When you see the influence he had on, in particular white artists and white bands who went on to be much more successful, there's a voice in the film that says it goes beyond appropriation. And it's more like obliteration.

Lisa Cortes: The obliteration means a negation of what someone has contributed. And it also means that by negating them, they don't have the opportunity to make money off of what they have been contributed.

Amna Nawaz: Little Richard thought that erasure. Here he is speaking at the late Otis Redding's induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.

Little Richard, American Musician: One of the greatest composers ever lived, that include me and everybody else, Jimi Hendrix and all of them that's been with me. James Brown, the Beatles and Mick Jagger. He was with me, too. Mick, you remember that? He said he know he was sleeping on the floor. They didn't have no bed for him.

Lisa Cortes: He's at a point in his life where he sees how so many others have benefited from what he started and how he's never received any recognition, never received a Grammy at that point in the film. We have all gone on the journey with him. We have seen where that cosmic dust of creativity has landed and influenced others. But we've also seen the lack in many ways that it's given to Richard.

Amna Nawaz: His own internal tension between the church in which he was raised and the stage where he could be uninhibited is laid bare in the film.

Little Richard: Thing in life now is to be a mess. Whether you're homosexual, whatever walk a life a person may be, God loves them.

Jason King, University of Southern California: He existed in contradiction. He could be openly gay, in some ways, probably to her circles. This happened for decades.

Lisa Cortes: There's this pendulum, you know, between the sacred and the profane. And there is a tremendous struggle for him to be someone who loves God as much as he does but to also question what that relationship can be as a queer person.

Amna Nawaz: What do you think his legacy is when it comes to the LGBTQ community today?

Lisa Cortes: He had a lot of complexities about his queerness. But what I do love is someone like a Billy Porter who in our film says regardless of all of that, his very being gave me permission as a gay black man to express myself completely. He introduced into culture this sense of fluidity that so many artists then picked up on and have amplified.

Amna Nawaz: Cortes, who started her career as a hip hop music executive says that fluidity can be seen in today's stars like Lil Nas X, the Little Richard song she wishes she could have included.

Lisa Cortes: Keep. A Knocking, But I Can't Come In. That's like Richard's story. He's like -- he keeps trying to get in there. He keeps trying to access it all, but he just couldn't get in there. But at the same time, there's so much joy and liberation in the music that he gave to us.

Amna Nawaz: The film Little Richard: I Am everything is available to stream online now on Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video. For PBS News Weekend, I'm Amna Nawaz.

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