drop, kitsch and roll: a little richard story

drop, kitsch and roll: a little richard story

‘Little Richard is the originator of trash. The very fact he was allowed to take centre stage in American culture still blows my mind today.’

Mark Leckey introduces William Klein’s never before released documentary The Little Richard Story (1980) at the Tate Modern with surprising grace for a true fan boy. A self-professed fan, Leckey – 2008 Turner Prize winner and of Fiorucci made me Hardcore (1999) fame – made his name through video work created from found imagery. Klein’s documentary is compiled largely without Little Richard’s presence, but you rarely notice. In fact the structure makes the director’s lack of access more comedic.

Documenting his pinball venture from former drag queen (by the name of Princess Lavonne) to the path of the holy and back again, Klein’s film finds Little Richard during his second exit from the excesses of fame after the death of his brother.

He had taken a room in the home of a religious couple in Nashville, selling ‘Black Heritage’ bibles in television ads for their company – still on the same rousing form, even in infomercial mode. The wife softly informs Klein that she spent $25,000 on decorating his room, installing plush purple carpets, an in-room tub, and an over-bed mirror – for ‘meditation purposes’ – and to raucous laughs from the Tate Friday night crowd.


‘Something I learned from Little Richard,’ Leckey goes on to say, ‘is an investment in worthlessness. Finding an investment in trash, something worthless in you, and transmuting that and turning that into something powerful.’

Having been denied access to Richard, Klein instead turns his lens to expose troupes of his impersonators in varying forms of plausability and talent around LA, all wishes of big dreams in sharp white suits in numbered pre-X Factor style line-ups and the mirrors of men’s washrooms. He interviews the locals who witnessed his escapades as a kid in Macon while they wash their smalls in their back yards and films garage-style crooner bands who continue to perform his greatest hits.

It doesn’t stop Klein trying to attract Richard back though. On a hot afternoon in the late 70s, Klein throws a Little Richard party in his deep South hometown of Macon, Georgia… sans the man himself. The crowds await for the King of Rock and Roll. Instead they get an old white man’s rendition of ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’ and a honky tonk rendition of his hit Lucille.

‘If we’re not gonna get the real little Richard, we’re going to get a new little Richard, and have a little Richard Day anyway!’ a host shouts.

The original Georgia peach lives on. Meanwhile, I’m crossing my fingers for the DVD release.