The Man In The Mirror Vest: Looking Back At The Little Richard Story (1980)

illustration by Dani Manning

Little Richard was one of history’s greatest screamers.  Forget the lyrics to his songs: his “wooo’s” do all the real talking. You don’t even need to know how “Tutti Frutti” was originally a song about topping (the  original lyrics went “Tutti Frutti/Good booty”) because you can hear the raw sex in those woo’s. “The thrill of singing about such a topic lingered in the recording,” Sasha Geffen wrote about the song in Glitter Up The Dark: How Pop Music Broke The Binary. The real story of Little Richard is encoded in his gestures, his looks, his nonsensical outbursts.

Released in 1980, The Little Richard Story is a film about how wooo’s can make the man. Produced by OKO-Filmproduktion for West German television, the documentary was written and directed by William Klein, the photographer and filmmaker who had already cut his cinematic teeth with a trio of fiction filmsincluding 1966’s delightful fashion mockumentary Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, one of the French New Wave’s most underrated filmsand several documentaries. On paper, Klein’s assignment seemed relatively straightforward: tell the story of one of rock & roll’s most flamboyant & influential personalities with the icon’s full cooperation. Promised full access to Little Richard by the star and his handlers, Klein and his crew decamped to Macon, Georgia, to capture the self-styled King of Rock & Roll in his hometown. 

Klein, who had gone to Algeria in 1969 to film a documentary about Eldridge Cleaver while the revolutionary Black Panther leader was living in exile from the States, was no stranger to working with subjects who viewed him with some degree of suspicion, if not outright hostility. His experiences with the radical Cleaver ended up going much smoother than working with the born-again Little Richard, who ghosted the production after filming only a few segments. According to Klein and those involved with the documentary, there was no explanation given for Richard’s sudden non-involvement. The filmmaker found himself stuck in Georgia with an idle film crew, a deadline to hit, and an M.I.A superstar.

Necessity being a fertile mother, Klein took the Little Richard-shaped hole in his production and filled it with a cavalcade of Little Richard impersonators, impressionistic tours of Macon, and uncredited archival footage of Richard in concert from D.A. Pennebaker’s Keep on Rockin’ and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour to create a documentary that was more Waiting For Godot in spirit than Don’t Look Back. Since his star refused to shine for him in person, Klein had no choice but to capture his decaying light from a great distance. 

The results are astonishing: The Little Richard Story presents a mystery without a solution, asking plenty of questions about its subject without deigning to answer any of them. Rather than painting a clear portrait of the musician, it leaves the viewer afterward feeling like they understand the man less than they did before. 

“We went looking for Little Richard, the King of Rock & Roll, from Macon, Georgia to Nashville to Hollywood from 1956 to 1980. We found him, we lost him, we found dozens of fake Little Richards. And this is how it happened,” Klein narrates at the beginning of the film, over a Godardian title card of blinking letters. A rapid montage of Little Richard performing flickers by while his voice shouts “WOP BOP A LOO BOP” in a capella loop over the photos. Klein shuts up and never opens his mouth again over the course of 90 minutes. The Little Richard Story from this point on eschews all forms of narration, title cards, chyrons, or contextual aids beyond what Klein captures in interviews and footage on the streets of Macon. Klein abandons the viewer to make sense of the proceedings just as Little Richard abandoned him.

A lack of context pervades the entire film. When Klein films a numbered lineup of eager Little Richard impersonators—running a wide gamut of ages, races, and even genders—doing a group audition, we’re not told what they’re auditioning for. Did Klein find these people for the film? Is this a regular thing that happened at the time in Macon? Is this related to the Little Richard Day celebration we see the Mayor of Macon set up later in the documentary? What’s the prize they’re vying for? Klein tells us nothing, trusting that these hopeful wannabes with their towering pompadours and camera-shy demeanors will be interesting enough to stand on their own. He’s right.

The Richard doppelgangers appear throughout the film; a trio of them appear near the top of the documentary, lip-syncing “Tutti Frutti” while standing in a car as rear projection footage of palm trees whiz past them. Klein catches them in the bathroom during the audition, practicing their “WOOOOO’s” in a mirror; one of them, a dead-ringer for a young Morris Day, kicks his leg up on the sink like it’s a piano and mimes Richard’s signature frenzied hammering. They stand shoulder to shoulder in a lineup for Klein’s camera, singing one at a time while the others stand around with varying degrees of discomfort on their face.

No matter how accurate they are—and some of them come damn close—seeing so many impersonators at once produces an uncanny effect. Little Richard feels less and less real with each attempt to channel his mojo, to the point that it seems like these men and women are trying to imitate a cartoon and not a flesh and blood performer. This becomes even more explicit with the film’s cringe-inducing comedic highlight: Jericho, a bespectacled bearded white auditioner who delivers a long in-character monologue in a lisping, stereotypical “black voice” before breaking out in an impassioned rendition of “Jenny, Jenny.” Klein frames Jericho flanked by two Black auditioners, whose rapidly-shifting facial expressions hit every number on a 1-10 scale of Are-You-Kidding-Me-With-This-Shit.

This isn’t the last time Klein mines racial discomfort for material; he later comes across a bare-chested performer in blackface and an afro wig singing “Lucille” to a crowd of white Georgians who are really into it. The organizer of the performance confronts Klein’s cameraman, shouting “I don’t want this on TV! Get these cameras out of here!”

Klein spends a fair amount of time just documenting Macon itself, steeping us in the landscape that shaped Little Richard. His camera pans across gas stations and pawn shops, women washing clothes in buckets, little children singing rapturous hymns, and catches a rare performance by blind blues singer the Rev. Pearly Brown, playing his guitar on the streets.

When Klein finally gets off the streets and shows us Little Richard, it’s mostly through the lens of the past: Richard performing on TV before he developed his signature hair style; Richard in his prime wailing before a packed stadium in a shimmering mirror vest; Richard in the 70’s going the Full Liberace with a diamond choker playing a piano whiter than the cocaine he was consuming in copious amounts. His real life rise and fall narrative is briefly alluded to in interviews with people who claim to have worked with Little Richard—these include the songwriter Robert Alexander Blackwell; a hair stylist who takes credit for Richard’s iconic do; and Percy, a bandleader who holds court about his time as Richard’s valet and confidant. We never hear Klein’s side of these conversations, nor does he formally identify them or verify/challenge anything they say. “I was there from the beginning,” Percy booms. “When I tell you a story about Little Richard it’s gospel.” Every one of these men speak as authorities on the subject and the film leaves you to separate the hearsay from history.

The gravelly-voiced Percy is Klein’s most compelling source, a perpetually sweaty man who coaches both singers and musicians alike on how to play the Little Richard style. His bawdy stories about touring with Little Richard paint a picture of rock & roll decadence at odds with the evangelical lifestyle we see Richard living in the film’s present. 

“Richard was bisexual,” Percy tells a table full of his bandmates, spinning a yarn about Richard inviting women to his hotel room to have sex with Percy while Richard watched and jerked himself off. “He was a freak,” Percy asserts—a sex maniac who’d pass up a pretty woman to pick up an ugly one any day of the week. “Show him a girl who looks as good as Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield and you couldn’t find his joint with a microphone,” Percy cackles.

In addition to detailing Little Richard’s voyeuristic exploits, Percy offers insight into Richard’s fall from grace with stories about Richard borrowing money from the mob and being blacklisted from their nightclubs when he refused to follow their prudent financial advice and downgrade from employing three beauticians to one. This is about all the backstory The Little Richard Story is willing to provide, which makes its depictions of “modern” Richard even more perplexing. How does a hedonistic, drug-popping, bisexual Black man end up as the meek house guest of a white Bible salesman?

In one of the film’s funniest and most jarring transitions, Klein cuts from Percy talking about Little Richard pleasuring himself in a hotel room to Little Richard singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” behind a desk piled high with commemorative Bibles. Klein pulls the camera back, revealing a backing band accompanying Richard’s soulful rendition. This is one of the handful of scenes Klein filmed with the singer before he Raptured himself out of the production.

Klein captures a fascinating change in this sequence: when Richard is singing, he seems comfortable and wholly himself. As soon as the song ends and he stands up to take his place along two fellow Bible salesmen (both white), we see the drawbridge go up on Richard’s face. He begins visibly sweating, eyes darting to avoid the camera; as the two other men speak, he looks exactly as uncomfortable as his impersonators did when they’re standing around waiting for their turn to sing. When Klein cuts back to this scene later in the film, it’s Richard’s turn to extol the virtues of the “Black heritage Bibles” they’re selling, and he’s back in his groove: impassioned, loud, and wooo-ing to the rafters.

The born-again community Little Richard was involved in gives Klein one hell of a consolation prize for his film: while he loses Richard, he gains access to his business partner, Sam Morris. The scenes with Sam and his wife Zelda are where The Little Richard Story takes its most disturbing and mysterious turn. The Morrises give Klein a tour of their opulent manor, repeatedly saying that Richard had moved into their Nashville home 15 months ago, with no explanation for why he’s living with them or what they’re getting out of this relationship. Zelda, in particular, is an arresting presence—she speaks in a halting, dazed voice like she’s under the influence of hypnosis. Zelda takes great pride in showing Klein Richard’s bedroom and bathroom which they modified to the tune of $25,000. “This is his sunken tub,” Zelda says in a dreamy voice, “which he enjoys very much.”

Klein pans his camera up in the bedroom to linger on the shatter-proof  mirror hanging over Richard’s bed. “In this bed Richard has spent many hours meditating, reading, and taking a lot of his telephone calls,” Zelda drones to the camera. “He has just thoroughly enjoyed this room.”

The atmosphere of the Morris home is cultic and strange. Is Richard their business partner, patsy, prisoner, or lover? Are they the reason why he didn’t want to finish the film? Did Richard only agree to do the film to promote the Morris’s Black heritage Bibles? Did he drop out because Klein got all the pitch footage and Richard didn’t want to talk about anything else? Whatever suspicions Klein has about Richard and the Morrises he keeps to himself.

The only time the film spotlights Richard’s refusal to participate is when Klein cuts to a local radio DJ updating the public about “The Little Richard situation,” which gets clarified further when we see the Mayor of Macon calling a local Hilton to ask them if they’ve seen Little Richard—not only has the singer ditched his documentary, but he’s also no-showing the city’s Little Richard Day celebration.

In the absence of its central figure, The Little Richard Story has to come up with a circuitous way of talking about the man and his music. The lack of access ends up being a blessing: instead of being beholden to self-mythologizing or tied to a conventional rise and fall narrative, Klein focuses on the spirit of the man. He hews close to the strategies that Todd Haynes would later use in his fictional music films Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There, trading in history for legend, truth for vibes, the artist as an idea and not a real person.

So many music films, both fictional and otherwise, are rendered D.O.A. for their adherence to conventional Western storytelling. Everything becomes a Hero’s Journey; the mysteries of creation and the contradictions of a singular life are pancaked into a formulaic narrative about overcoming some deeply rooted trauma. Thanks to the brutal accuracy of Walk Hard, we can now see these beats coming with the Hubble Telescope. 

Instead of origin stories and cheap psychology, The Little Richard Story posits that the sum of Little Richard’s life and work is his mannerisms. The style is what makes the man: the hair, the way he rocks a piano, the John Waters-esque mustache, the eye makeup, the wooo. We see this early on, as Percy coaches a young impersonator to sing like Richard.

“Listen, you’re leaving out the main thing,” Percy says, “if you don’t scream we ain’t got no Little Richard going.” He coaches him on exactly how to position himself on the piano bench: “you gotta keep facing the audience at all times because Richard never faced the piano.”

With his background in photography and fashion, Klein understands the importance of gestures and iconography. In a way, they’re more important than the music. Watching archival footage of Little Richard in his mirrored suits, wailing at a crowd with eyes lined like Cleopatra, muscular arms pounding a piano, he looks like a time traveling glam rock god. As much as rock historians go on about how disruptive Elvis gyrating his pelvis on TV was, this image of Little Richard is an even more radical disruption of consensus reality. Imagine living in the tail end of the 1950’s and seeing this wild, androgynous sex god shrieking like a housewife who’s seen a mouse in her kitchen while banging his piano with a prizefighter’s intensity. The music itself is beside the point: it’s all about that scream, that body, those moves.

“I’m quitting showbiz,” Little Richard sings in an archival clip toward the end of the film. “I wanna go straight.” Then, Klein brings us back to the present. As the new Richard performs “God’s Beautiful City” with his Christian band, Klein intercuts footage of the old Richard: shining like a diamond onstage, sweating like a sinner in a church. Singing in that office, he’s not the dynamo he used to be but he still seems larger than life. Perhaps that’s the appeal of God for converted pop stars like Little Richard, Bob Dylan, and Patti Smith: when you live in a world that reveres you as a deity, where even politicians crave your shine, the only way to dim yourself is to reverse the fan-performer polarity and put yourself in God’s audience. 

Klein isn’t the only documentarian who’s tried to tell Little Richard’s story. Lisa Cortés’s recent documentary Little Richard: I am Everything offers a wide-ranging look at the icon’s career and turbulent personal life, with a parade of celebrity talking heads–everyone from John Waters to Mick Jagger–to situate Little Richard’s place in pop culture. With a particular focus on Little Richard’s influence on gay culture, Cortés’s film illuminates aspects of his legacy that Klein’s film can only hint at. But in its rush to offer more context, more answers, more armchair psychology to explain Little Richard, he begins to feel less like a myth and more like a beloved worker at the culture factory who’s finally getting his gold retirement watch. 

While Little Richard: I am Everything can currently be seen at a theater or streaming service near you, The Little Richard Story remains unavailable on physical media or streaming. Aside from the occasional museum and festival screening, it exists as one of many vital cultural artifacts that can only be accessed through piracy. For those unwilling to sail into international waters online, here’s hoping that some distributor eventually rescues this haunting gem from obscurity and gives us all a chance to ponder its mysteries.