For Little Richard, on the other hand, loneliness was intertwined with his decision to be openly gay as a popular musician, at a time when this was extremely rare. The man who had no qualms about writing an ode to the joys and pitfalls of anal sex—yes that’s what “Tutti Frutti” was originally about, the documentary points out— was the same man who disavowed his queerness at various points in his life, stating that he believed the Bible forbade him to be gay. A moment of real heartbreak occurs when the documentary shows Richard quipping to an interviewer: “God let me know that he made Adam be with Eve not Steve.” Cortés imprints Little Richard’s self-loathing upon us by using this clip in an early sequence of the film and then, near the end, returning to it, so we have to sit with the contrast. This Little Richard, the one fixated on Old Testament religion, is dressed in a drab beige suit and dons a tempered afro, looking nothing like the ethereal maestro of stage and song who helped craft what we know today as rock-n-roll. The difference sits heavy on the psyche, calling out for present-day empathy for the bygone era Little Richard endured.
In our current age, Giovanni is able to speak about being a lesbian without shame. In a scene that takes place in a church pulpit, she hypothesizes the extinction of the penis, while also affirming her marriage to fellow academic Virginia Fowler: “I’m very fortunate to have somebody who loves me. I don’t care what anybody has to say about it.” Fowler is interviewed in the film and we see Giovanni give her a sheepish peck on the cheek in their kitchen. Giovanni never matches Little Richard’s sexual candor though: any specific thoughts about their relationship or Giovanni’s relationship to her own sexuality are kept private. Brewster and Stephenson portray a Giovanni whose boundaries are firm, leaving in scenes where she chooses not to answer theirs and other interviewers’ questions.
Consequently the film has to fill in uncomfortable gaps in the story, including another narrative thread in the larger story of loneliness: family estrangement. When Giovanni’s granddaughter comes to visit, it is notably the first time she has ever stepped foot in her grandmother’s home, due to years of estrangement between her grandmother and her father, as Stephenson pointed out during the Q&A. Mother and son spent years repairing their relationship, which eventually led to the visit. Little Richard, meanwhile, was kicked out of his family’s home by his father, a minister, nightclub owner, and bootlegger who didn’t accept Richard’s queerness and femme presentation. (Navigating the desires of the flesh and the spirit apparently ran in the family.) He was only welcomed back after his music started being played on the radio.