Little Richard, the legendary architect of rock’n’roll, passed away in 2020. However, tonight he is set to shake up the Sundance Film Festival through the premiere of “Little Richard: I Am The Whole Thing”. The film, directed by Park City veteran Lisa Cortés, will debut at 9 PM MST at the Library Center Theatre as one of the opening night features of the festival founded by Robert Redford. Commissioned by CNN Films last year, the 98-minute documentary sees Cortés take on the role of solo director, drawing on her Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning producing experience.

According to Cortés, the film’s probing narrative, which falls under the U.S. Documentary Festival category, is not structured as a traditional three-act narrative. Rather, it oscillates like a pendulum, reflecting the complexities of Little Richard’s life journey and how it influenced his music – be it the great gospel songs or the rock and roll/gospel rock and roll hits.

Lisa Cortes
Lisa CortesCourtesy Sundance

This year, Cortés leveraged her presence at Sundance as producer of the documentary “Invisible Beauty” directed by Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng, while also presenting as co-director the documentary “All In: The Struggle for Democracy”. The director has maintained her ability to define works of art with strong contrasts, and during an interview she shared the goals she had in the making of her latest film “I Am The Entire Thing”, in which she involved important personalities for the making of the documentary examining America’s experience.

QUESTION: You changed the subject from the story of Stacey Abrams and American democracy in the film All In to the life of the great Little Richard, at least superficially. What attracted you to her story?

LISA CORTÉS:: There is so much to explore.

Everyone knows the icon, they know the line “Shut up!”, everyone knows “Tutti Frutti”, but I wanted to dig deeper. Through her words, I wanted to investigate the path she went through in the context of the transformation of culture. As a transgressive figure, she has influenced music and culture, but at the same time she has experienced multiple difficult situations and undergone personal changes. It was amazing. No one has yet explored this aspect. I wanted to bring it to light.

QUESTION: Did you have a guiding principle for the film, given Little Richard’s larger-than-life personality and legacy?

CORTÉS: Initially, I wanted to give him the opportunity to tell his own story. However, as we delved deeper into the footage, I realized there were moments that were so brilliant because no one else could get away with saying things the way he did, or had such a finely-tuned, vibrant way of expressing himself.

For example, this morning I was thinking about Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” which uses “Keep-A-Knockin’,” a song that I really wanted to include in the film but couldn’t figure out how to do it. How many people love “Rock and Roll” without realizing that its famous drum beat and lyrics are actually modeled after Little Richard’s “Keep-A-Knockin'”? As we say in the film, his DNA is everywhere.

QUESTION: You strike a dynamic balance in “I Am Everything” by featuring high-profile fans like Mick Jagger, as well as lesser-known scholars and activists, and a wealth of footage of Little Richard himself. You opted not to use a voiceover. What led you to approach the film in this way?

CORTÉS: The structural integrity of the story all begins with Little Richard himself. Prior to filming, my archival team, editors, and I spent a considerable amount of time diving deep into his voice and how it evolved over the years. Little Richard was not the most reliable storyteller, so we had to be discerning about which moments to include.

As a director, I always consider which voices I want to include in the conversation with my subject. I knew I wanted to feature the artist, as well as high-profile fans like Mick Jagger, who not only expressed his love for Little Richard, but also paid homage to the black artists who inspired him, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I also wanted to include scholars and activists who could provide a broader context for Little Richard’s legacy. Ultimately, we chose not to use a voiceover so that Little Richard’s own voice and spirit could shine through.

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In addition to featuring high-profile fans and Little Richard himself, I also wanted to include a diverse group of scholars who could provide cultural context for his legacy. As a closet historian, I am always learning, and I selected Black and queer scholars who offered unique and insightful perspectives on the impact of Little Richard’s music and the cultural context in which it emerged.

QUESTION: I hope you don’t mind me saying, but in many ways, this is one of the most political films you’ve made to date…

CORTÉS: It is, because I am intimately connected to all of these worlds. I am well-versed in the art of being an outlier and going against the norm to speak one’s truth.

QUESTION: It was once interesting to me in the film how you explore the intersection of Richard’s queerness and his faith. And I thought that was once just one of the most fascinating parts of the movie, that complexity of his identity and how it informed his art. Can you speak a little bit more about that?

CORTÉS: Absolutely. I mean, I think that was one of the most important things for me to explore in the film, because it’s not something that’s talked about enough when we talk about Little Richard. And yet, it’s such a crucial part of who he was and how he saw himself in the world. So, for me, it was really important to not shy away from that, but to really explore it and try to understand it.

And I think what we see in the film is that it’s not a simple thing. It’s not like he was just conflicted and then he resolved that conflict and everything was fine. It was a constant struggle for him. But at the same time, it was also a source of inspiration for him. It was something that drove him to create the kind of music that he did, and to connect with people in the way that he did.

So, yeah, I think it’s a really important part of his story, and one that we need to keep talking about and exploring. Because it’s not just Little Richard’s story, it’s the story of so many other artists and people who have had to navigate these kinds of conflicts in their own lives. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from that.

QUESTION:: As someone who grew up alongside his music and with a revering father and uncles at Little Richard’s Church, he had always been about so much more than that hit of “Shut up”…

CORTÉS: Well, you’re really lucky. You are truly lucky to have had that training. I can say that, for some of the people who worked on the film, that was their best introduction to him. They only knew about him on “All in the Family,” on “Pee-Wee,” on talk show shows when he made the rounds where he leaned into that. So for me it was really surprising, because I knew the music, but I found that there were a lot of people who just knew him as a one-dimensional comedian.

QUESTION: Are you having difficulties with your list of potential interviewees?

CORTÉS: I would like to talk about this. Basically, there are some young artists that we expected to have in the film, but have decided to decline the offer. When I got their negative responses, I said to myself, “Okay, I’ve already picked up a lot of other great personalities.” I found that some of these artists were unaware of Little Richard’s story and didn’t feel comfortable talking about something they didn’t know.

QUESTION: At the same time, there are many great rock ‘n’ roll stars from the golden years who could have contributed a few Little Richard covers to support his work and his legacy…

CORTÉS: There are some artists, like Elton John, who have chosen to do just that. I can’t speak for all the other artists, but I can say that their respect for Little Richard and the time they put into our film was incredible.

QUESTION: Do you like Niles Rodgers and Jagger?

CORTÉS: You see, the funny thing with Mick Jagger, I was well-informed, is that you have 20 minutes, and to be honest, I made a decision on Friday. They usually say, “You’re in New York, right? Can you make it to London by Tuesday for Mick?”

I had been chasing him for a long time, and I said, “I’m heading straight to the airport.” They usually say, “Oh, and by the way, it’s better if you have 20 minutes.” So I arrive, and we get ready. Mick has to be involved. He’s saying, “Oh, let’s chat first,” and I thought that was so charming. He wanted to know where I was coming from with this film even before we started. We start the interview. We’re at the 20-minute mark, and I said, “Listen, you know, I’m reverent that you have 20 minutes.”

He’s saying, “No, no, we have more to discuss,” and he kept chatting, and then, after an hour, he’s saying, “Lisa, do you have everything you need?” And I’m like, “Yes, I’m excellent.”

Truthfully, during the first 15 minutes, I made sure to get what I needed, or alternatively, you know, I guess this says a lot to him and his feelings for Richard.


CORTÉS: Well, I think as we progress in our lives and careers, we tend to look back and pay homage to the people who have helped us succeed in significant ways, in all sorts of different ways.

QUESTION: Speaking of careers, last year we wrote about your deal with Blue Ant. So, I wanted to know, where do things stand with your adaptation of Mother Lode: The 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop?

CORTÉS: We are in the process of finalizing a deal for that, which is very exciting. I have a slate of 20 projects, and I’ll have some exciting news to share about each of the other partners who are coming on board. And, I have another film at Sundance this year called Invisible Beauty that Naomi Campbell is in, which I am producing.

QUESTION: This isn’t the first time you’ve been at Sundance as a producer, but it is the first time you’re 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 competition. We’re in the U.S. Documentary Competition, alongside so many works by people that I love.

You know, when I was at Sundance with Precious or The Woodsman, it was as a producer, 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 important…


CORTÉS: It’s more than Richard. You know, for me, it’s about the cultural wars that are still happening.

These cultural wars that seek to rewrite history as we know it as a way 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 the weaponization that’s dividing our country and dividing us globally. So, as a director, to be honored by Sundance, to premiere my film there and to have a platform to talk about the individual, the music, the politics, but also our culture is like the gift of a lifetime.

QUESTION: Still, it’s surprising how homage is paid to his skill. This man, who was black and queer and extravagant in Eisenhower’s America…

CORTÉS: You know, it was by spending time with him that I fell in love with how this man from Macon, Georgia captivated me and the audience. I always say we should play the game of eating in Macon, Georgia when watching this movie.

QUESTION: God, you’d get drunk in the first 15 minutes.

CORTÉS: Exactly. But on the other hand let’s talk about Macon, Georgia.

QUESTION: That’s your problem, right? It’s his introduction. I’ve always thought it was a bit of a dart throw against James Brown.

CORTÉS: </ strong> Yes, because he is planting the flag. Remember, he introduced 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 biggest stories that we couldn’t get into. But this story is about this man from Macon, Georgia, who came out to the world at a time and place that didn’t allow for that kind of expression, and he did it with sequins, mascara and a designed mustache.

If that isn’t courage, I don’t know what else is.

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