If only because they were succeeded by the norms-challenging tumult of the ’60s, the American 1950s have long since acquired a reputation for conformity, complacency, and repression. But there are exceptions to every rule, and nothing gives lie to the notion of Eisenhower-era vanilla blandness so much as the very existence of a performer posthumously showcased in a new documentary playing theaters nationwide this Tues/11 only. (It will also be released to digital formats April 21.)
Lisa Cortes’ Little Richard: I Am Everything pays tribute to a flaming legend whose too-muchness impresses even now—if he were alive today, would he be banned in Florida?—and surely must have blown minds 70 years ago or so. The narcissistic hubris amplified by that title remains justified. Inexplicable, uncontrollable, outrageous, Little Richard was a sort of exploding cosmos unto himself, imitable but never duplicated.
One of 12 children born to a poor family in 1932 Macon, Georgia—his father a minister, bootlegger, and nightclub owner, which explains a few things—Richard Wayne Penniman began performing (sometimes in drag) on the “chitlin circuit” when still a teen. Inspired by everyone from Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Louis Jordan to flamboyant gender-bender Esquerita, he had some early success as an R&B artist. But his explosive energy was uniquely suited to detonate along with that new phenomenon, rock and roll, starting with 1955 hit “Tutti Frutti”—a “dirty blues” whose original lyrics had been a none-too-veiled ode to anal sex.
The very extremity of Little Richard’s screamy, flashy, piano-pounding, and pompadour-piling persona was so out there, it probably protected him to a degree: He could be taken as a cartoon, whereas Elvis’ swiveling hips seemed all too tangible a threat to the nation’s virgin daughters. Nonetheless, he wrestled with his own demons, periodically “repenting” to eschew rock for gospel music, marrying, divorcing, even enrolling in a Black religious college and becoming “ex-gay” at one point. I Am Everything details all that and more in a busy life with plenty of contradictions, and an evasive center. If we can still hardly get a fix on what he was “really like,” there is the sense three years after his death at age 87 that he never quite figured that out, either. But the professedly “loud and gaudy” exterior was fabulous.
We see him interviewed here by everyone from David Frost to Donny & Marie, while latterday commentators/admirers include Nona Hendrix, Billy Porter, Tom Jones, Nile Rodgers, and John Waters (whose mustache is a “twisted tribute to him”). Cortes appropriately mirrors a personification of excess by straying from PBS-style doc formula in fanciful reenactment sequences, and entertaining montages of archival errata (flowers blooming in fast-mo, mushroom clouds etc.) to convey the insane energy her subject channeled and inspired. Info on all the film’s theatrical playdates and venues (locally including the Roxie and Metreon) can be found here.
Other singular lives, visions and personalities are displayed in films arriving this week. This Sat/15 the Alamo Drafthouse is hosting a double bill (albeit with separate admission) of documentaries about pranksterdom as a lifestyle. Chop & Steele (more info here) portrays the travails of beloved Found Footage Festival founders Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher (who’ll also be present for some live comedy) when their patently ludicrous act as the titular faux fitness experts actually got them sued for fraud by the unamused parent company of one local TV station whose morning news show they were booked on.
A Life on the Farm (more info here) tells the strange, sometimes disturbing, ultimately kinda heartwarming story of an isolated farmer in Somerset, England whose eccentricities extended to the creation of exceedingly odd “home videos” in which he made cardboard skeletons “drive” tractors, carried his dead mother out to a field so “the cows could pay their last respects,” and so forth.
Two eccentric fantasies hitting major digital platforms this Tues/11 bring their own insistent individual to bear on narrative cinema. Samuel Tressler IV”s Leda, which played Another Hole in the Head in late 2021, is a wordless, widescreen, B&W enigma—in 3-D yet! It reimagines the ancient “Leda and the Swan” myth as a morbid period piece located somewhere between Edward Gorey, Maya Deren, “Incident at Owl Creek,” and Eraserhead.
Also applying a visually poetic tilt to folk-horrorish terrain is another debut feature, Lucas Delangle’s French The Strange Case of Jacky Caillou. The title character is a pasty rural lad (Thomas Parigi) whose grandmother (Edwige Blondiau) attracts visitors due to her supernatural healing powers—which he appears not to have inherited, at least until she passes away. Then, he tries to manifest them to meet the needs of a young woman (Lou Lampros) whose mysterious transformations may be related to a wolf killing livestock in the area. Though it falls short of the transcendental mysticism aimed for, this French production’s magnificent landscape imagery does lend it a certain magic. Dark Star Pictures is releasing it to DVD and digital.
A different kind of idiosyncratic personal cinema is afforded this week by a very little-seen item in BAMPFA’s ongoing (through May 3) “Pioneers of Queer Cinema” series. Tom Joslin is best remembered for Silverlake Life: The View From Here, a posthumously completed video diary co-directed with Peter Friedman that was probably the single most wrenching feature-length product of the US AIDS epidemic. (At least amongst its first-wave studies—more recently, hindsight has allowed poignant overviews like How To Survive a Plague.) It chronicled his struggle and that of his longtime partner Mark Massi as they both fell ill; Joslin would die in mid-1990, his lover a year later. Few documentaries on any subject are as intimate, unflinching, and painful to watch.
But as esteemed as Silverlake is (it won numerous awards), I didn’t even know it had a sort of “prequel”: Blackstar: Autobiography of a Close Friend, which is variously dated as being from 1977 and 2022, suggesting some kind of recent reconstruction. It’s very much in the vein of Me Decade experimental cinema, mixing elements of home movies, interviews, Joslin’s own formative celluloid efforts (going back to age 14), avant-garde tropes and sometimes tongue-in-cheek archival borrowings. The first half is more or less autobiographical background, with an audio clip from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? telling us all we need to know about his parents’ broken marriage. Nor are they greatly flattered by their own none-too-evolved responses when asked how they feel about Tom being gay, or having a husband.
After “A Seven Minute Didactic Interlude” at the midpoint—this being the 70s, the personal couldn’t be made political enough—we dive into his already fully-committed relationship with Massi, the two of them then living in Maine. (They’d have moved to Los Angeles by the time of the later documentary.) Theirs is a playfully argumentative domestic life that reflects the Gay Lib spirit of the era in many respects. Yet B&W Blackstar also affords a view unlike most mementoes of gay male life back then, shorn of parades and protests, discos and Fire Island. Those were pursuits perhaps best suited to people nowhere near ready to “settle down,” still busy looking for something, or someone. Whereas Massi and Joslin had found each other, and that would be enough.
That feature will be followed by 1985’s Choosing Children from the late Debra Chasnoff and Kim Klausner. Life partners as well as a filmmaking team at the time, their 45-minute documentary broke significant ground in presenting lesbian parenting as simply another social/familial norm—despite the greater likelihood of legal complications and other hurdles at the time. Chasnoff passed away in 2017, leaving behind an Oscar won for the 1996 It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School as well as a fine last film (Prognosis: Notes on Living) chronicling her cancer battle. Klausner, however, is still with us, and will be present at the Berkeley screening; details are here (more info here).