Greetings again from the darkness. Good golly! Documentarian Lisa Cortes packs a lot into this profile of Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard. Director Cortes sticks with a familiar structure for the biopic; however, two things stood out to me about this documentary: it features remarkably little music for a musical doc, and it works well for both those who are very familiar with the legendary performer and those needing an introduction.
In cradle-to-grave fashion, we learn about Richard’s mother and father, and that he was one of 12 children in the family from Macon, Georgia. Plenty of photographs and clips from the era are included, and things really kick in when the history of “Tutti Frutti” is discussed. Shifting a bit from its original meaning, Little Richard served up a searing version that shocked many. But what shocked him is that much tamer versions from Elvis and especially Pat Boone outsold his. I particularly enjoyed learning that Little Richard picked up his famous scream from gospel singer Marion Williams.
Ms. Cortes utilizes many interviews by Little Richard himself to cover his complex life filled with contradictions and new paths. His father kicked him out of the house for being gay, setting him up for a lifetime of searching for his true identity. Richard’s track included pushing the early boundaries of rock and roll, pushing further boundaries in the world of queerness, exploring many facets of religion and attempting to balance his belief in the bible with his love of orgies, and his lifelong search for a true identity.
It was the 1956 film, THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, that provided most people’s first glance of Little Richard performing. The same can be said for Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent, among others, but none had the impact or the look and music of Little Richard. His many hits after “Tutti Frutti” included “Long Tall Sally”, “Lucille”, and of course, “Good Golly, Miss Molly”. It’s fascinating to hear Mick Jagger, John Waters, Tom Jones, and others provide the acknowledgment of Little Richard’s influence, however, even more interesting is listening to Little Richard himself walk us through his various stages of being. This is a man who, lacking an ounce of humility, proclaims, “I’m the one who started it all”, referencing Rock and Roll. He’s also the man who renounced his gay identity in order to embrace religion and begin preaching.
Little Richard was a master showman with a daring and hyper-energetic stage presence. None other than The Rolling Stones once opened for him on tour. His tongue-in-cheek catchphrase became “Shut up”, and he was heavily into drugs during the 1970’s. Little Richard was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986, and he has taken credit for the success of most every rock star over the last 70 years … and the fabulous closing montage makes it difficult to argue. Director Cortes does justice to the complex life of a complicated and talented man, and ‘Good Golly’, that was no easy task.
Opening in theaters and on Digital beginning April 21, 2023
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