Certain reviews warrant a disclaimer right off the bat, and this is one of them. The Rolling Stones are before my time, and the evolution of my musical taste skipped the phase where rock-and-roll should be. With that in mind, from my vantage point, Stones guitarist Keith Richards has always been more the image of the classic drug-and-booze-addled rockstar than an actual rockstar.
While some of you may discredit everything that follows based on that bit of honesty, some should at least take comfort in the fact that I walked into the new Netflix documentary “Keith Richards: Under The Influence” with an objective a mind as possible. Directed by Morgan Neville, the man responsible for the 2013 surprise Oscar-hit “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” the documentary follows Richards around as he muses in his signature wayward drawl on the various influences that inspire his music, and specifically his brand-new solo album Crosseyed Heart.
Throughout the film, Richards’ contagious cackle echoes all over, adding the same kind of electric buzz you imagine is palpable in any room he occupies. Frazzle-faced, never without eyeliner, and in an intimately nostalgic mood, Richards is his own inciting incident. “You never grow up,” he tells us in the opening narration, “you’re only grown up when you’re six feet under.” After a brief hiatus, when the Stones started taking it easy in 2007, Richards got the itch to get back into the studio and play some music again.
On meeting producer Steve Jordan, who refused to even consider the idea of him retiring, Richards was spurred on for his new album. Of all the supporting talking heads who provide some insight into Richards’ methods, Tom Waits is the wonderfully grizzly, endlessly quotable, highlight. Listening to him talk about Richards as archeologist who dabbles in “locality data” is a worthy subject of a documentary all on its own, and ‘Under The Influence’ is at its most enjoyable when it covers Waits’ and Richards’ studio jams.
For someone who comes into this with minimal knowledge of the Stones, the most interesting thing to take away is Richards’ own dissing of rock. “I gotta have the roll,” he says. The major musical influences are found with blues cats like Muddy Waters, rock-and-roll legend Chuck Berry, and country stars Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. Watching Richards chortle on about these guys, spliced in with retro footage of performances with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, and Waters himself, is sure to warm the hearts of every fan of music as art. As much as he clearly worships these guys, and feeds off of them artistically, it’s clear that his biggest influence remains his brothers-in-rock-and-roll, The Rolling Stones. His childlike nostalgia for the days gone by is endearing, and holds the master-key to the creative spirit of Crosseyed Heart.
Brief mention is made of his published memoir, “Life,” which is probably the place to go for those looking for more of a deeply satisfying exploration of the man and his history. Some of the more interesting aspects of his life — such as his public image, his relationship with Mick Jagger, his hundreds of guitars, and so on — are merely glossed over, and feel lacking in substance. It’s obvious that Richards is a furiously brilliant guitar (and bass!) player, and together with the likes of Berry, Waters, Waits, and the Stones, ‘Under The Influence’ is ultimately much more of a listening pleasure than a viewing one. Neville’s by-the-book direction makes sure of that. That said, Richards is an undeniably magnetic force of nature that keeps the attention span reined in for the swift 80-minute runtime. Fans of the man and his music should walk away feeling like they got plenty of satisfaction. [B]