Lisa Cortés examines the legacy of a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer in the Sundance documentary ‘Little Richard: I am Everything’

Lisa Cortés’ documentary “Little Richard: I am Everything” examines the man behind the hit songs, long hair and flamboyant personality. The 98-minute documentary, which premieres January 19 at Sundance, follows the path of Richard Penniman, also known as Little Richard, from 1930s Macon, Georgia, through underground black drag clubs to movie theaters. segregated concerts and international fame. Little Richard, who died at the age of 87 in 2020, burst onto the music scene in the 1950s and ultimately transformed rock ‘n’ roll. “His DNA from him is everywhere,” says Cortés, who used never-before-seen archival footage as well as interviews with family members, colleagues, musicians and historians to tell Little Richard’s story. The documentary is the first non-fiction feature film that Cortés has directed on her own. Her (In 2020 she co-directed “All In: The Fight For Democracy” with Liz Garbus). For more than two decades, Cortés has been a producer of narratives and documentaries including “Precious,” “The Woodsman” and most recently the documentary “Invisible Beauty,” also premiering at Sundance. “Little Richard: I am Everything” was one of the last documentaries commissioned by CNN Films. Despite the demise of the production companies in 2022, the film will premiere on CNN and stream on HBO Max later this year.

What drew you to Little Richard’s story?

He was especially interested in not only looking at Richard the icon and his contributions to music, but also to culture as a transgressive figure. And then, in addition, there was this man who was born in the segregated South, who defied so many norms and, at the same time, was having an internal battle between the secular and the profane. So when you look at all those levels to question, as a filmmaker, he lends himself to a lot of ways to get into the story.

In the production notes for the film, you said that her story and her struggles are more urgent than ever. Why?

Rock ‘n’ roll, race and weirdness are central to our culture, but also to our culture wars. I think we’re still dealing with a lot of the things that Richard addressed and challenged. The gender fluidity that Richard displayed is not new, and it wasn’t then. He just didn’t talk about it, and didn’t contextualize it. But it seems that in our contemporary culture, some people are still not comfortable with that.

Does the scripted content you’re working on share anything with the documents you’re working on?

The connective tissue is that I am interested in hidden figures. I’m interested in people you think you know by their outward appearance. As a filmmaker, I am committed to showcasing the complexity, richness, and value [behind that appearance] be it an institution like Apollo or an individual like Richard.

You worked closely with CNN Films to make this document. What do you think of the dismantling of the company?

It is a tremendous loss. I have had the most amazing experience working with them. They are such amazing collaborators. I welcome the filling of that void because it is necessary.

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