Ranging from Robert Frank’s unreleased “Cocksucker Blues” to Martin Scorsese’s “Shine a Light,” documentaries about the Rolling Stones practically form their own genre. “Keith Richards: Under the Influence,” which is available on Netflix starting today, adds another entry to that tradition — but also exists outside of it.
Directed by Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom,” “The Best of Enemies”), the intimate portrait of the 70-year-old guitarist avoids retreading historical details about the history of the band and instead deals entirely with Richards’ evolving musical sensibilities. Tracking the impact of musicians such as Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy on the eager young Richards, Morgan’s documentary captures Richards’ recent recording sessions and foregrounds his stylistic tendencies. The result is a uniquely focused look at the ways in which earlier musical traditions gave rise to one of the greatest living rock icons.
It couldn’t be more distinct from the other movie Neville premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.” But the filmmaker, whose “Best of Enemies” premiered at Sundance earlier this year, knows how to juggle each project on its own terms. In Toronto, shortly before the world premiere of “Under the Influence,” he spoke to Indiewire about the evolution of his recent project, working with Netflix and how his perspective on audiences has changed.
What’s it like to promote two projects at once?
They’re two totally different films. One was a four year project that felt like writing a novel. The other one was lot of work, a lot of travel. That’s part of what was fun about this film. It was like writing a hit single. You do it, don’t think about it, put it out, quick and dirty. But it fit the subject. I just didn’t overthink it. I think it would have been easy to say, “Let’s just do a 10-hour Keith Richards diary.” But Jane, his manager, said, “We don’t want to make a documentary at all.” This was never supposed to be a documentary. It all just happened by accident.
What did she think was going to happen?
She asked me five months ago to sit down with Keith and talk about songs. She said, “I want to have some video with him because we’re going into a press season and I want to have some video.” I thought, “Yeah, I’d love to sit down with Keith.”
How did that connection happen?
I produced the Rolling Stones documentary “Crossfire Hurricane,” and interviewed Keith once for a Muddy Waters documentary. It was actually Radical Media, the producers of the film with me, who’d been talking to Jane with advice about what to do. I knew those guys, too, and they mentioned me to Jane. She said, “Great, but you’re not making a documentary.” So I brought a pile of vinyl and a turntable to Keith’s house. That stuff is in the film. I said, “Why don’t we just talk about music?” The stuff he’s recording reflects all of his influences. I know Keith’s a huge music fan and loves to talk about that. I didn’t want to go into it with any agenda. Like, “Tell me about Mick,” or whatever the same stuff is that he gets asked in every other interview. We had such a good time.
So how did the project develop from there?
Then Jane said, “He’s going to the studio, why don’t you film some of that? But you’re not making a documentary.” So we went in and it was such a blast. Jane, again, said, “I don’t know if Keith would play much guitar.” Sure enough, he grabbed a guitar and started jamming.
What did Keith think about what you were doing?
Keith was having an awesome time. I wanted it to be fun for him. I wanted all the interviews to be just conversations, like you’re talking to somebody and just hanging out, discussing whatever’s going on. In that way, I think it was fun for him. He hadn’t been in the studio for a few months, so when a bunch of musicians showed up, that was exciting for him. In the studio, he gets to be just one of the guys.
There’s that great Tom Waits line in the film where he says that Keith’s “first home is the stage and his second is the studio.”
It’s true. And it’s funny, because when we were filming in the studio for a few days, I asked his assistant, “Does Keith want his own room where he doesn’t have to mix with everybody?” But Keith wanted to be in the mix. There was one little green room in the studio. The whole crew and the band would hang out every night and eat pizza. Keith would be on the couch with three other people, just talking and chatting. I don’t think I ever saw him happier than at that moment, just being one of the guys. He doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to do that. We tried to make the whole shoot feel that way.
What was your relationship to Keith’s work going into it — that is, as opposed to the Stones more generally?
I’m a big Mick Jagger fan, and Keith would probably disagree with this, but he’s the soul of the band. Keith’s the one you feel kind of lives it and represents that thing that the Stones have. The other thing is that I’ve loved the Stones, but I love great songwriting, and people don’t really think about the Stones this way. They wrote so many great songs. Jagger-Richards is one of the greatest singer-songwriting teams of all time, though we tend to not think of them that way. If you go back through the catalog, there are so many amazing songs, and you forget that Keith wrote those songs with Mick. They actually came from influences and experiences; he actually sat down and did this stuff.
Did you detect any resentment from Keith about not receiving enough credit for that?
No. The inspiring thing about it is that Keith doesn’t give a fuck about anything. You can call that zen, call it whatever you want. I wish I didn’t give a fuck as much as Keith doesn’t give a fuck. He’s unburdened by things. It’s not like some celebrities who change on camera or don’t want to discuss some things. I could’ve asked Keith anything. Frankly, he’s been asked about drugs and Mick in virtually every interview he’s done for decades.
So you felt it wasn’t worthy of exploration?
We talked about it in “Crossfire Hurricane.” I felt like we’ve already been there. It’s a sketch of this moment in time. When Keith was young, he wanted to be an old bluesman. Now that he’s old, he comes off as very young. He’s comfortable in his own skin.
Was there anything you had to challenge him on?
Every interview, when somebody asks about Mick, it usually winds up as a headline somewhere out of context. I know, because I have a Keith Richards Google alert, how many of those there are. Then somebody’s publicist gets angry. For him, that’s the most burdensome thing.
What do you make of his relationship with Mick?
They’re bound together as brothers, whether they like it or not. There are times when they resented that and other times when they embraced it. They’re going into a phase where they’re saying, “After 50 years, this is kind of a unique thing that we shouldn’t dismiss.” Keith says in the film, and has said for years, that if it were up to him he would only ever do the Stones. That’s his one great love. He just wants to be in the band and play music. It’s been more Mick over the years who’s been less comfortable and tried to prove himself on his own.
They’ve had big fights, and when Mick doesn’t want to play with Keith, he goes off and does his own thing. That’s the phase when Keith’s book came out, and the Stones didn’t do anything for a number of years. It got very cold. But now they’ve been on the road all summer. There are rumors all over the place about them going back into the studio. So it’s a strange relationship. But it’s brotherly — if it wasn’t, they’d have to break up.
How humble is Keith, really? He barely seems to have an ego in the film.
He can seem very humble and then come out with a nominative boast. Frankly, he deserves it. But I think he approached all this as a fan. Just the idea that rock stars have rock stars. The intent at the beginning was just to turn people on to this music they’d enjoyed.
Was there anything about the legacy of the Stones that surprised you?
I’ve spent so much time going through Stones-ology. I’ve read all the book and seen all the documentaries. When we were working on “Crossfire,” I went through hours and hours of the outtakes from “Cocksucker Blues,” which are fascinating — all these snapshots. To me, it’s actually very simple: The relationship between the two of them, and the Stones and what’s going on in America, what happened in their business lives, their drug lives, their sex lives — there’s probably books on each of those topics. Keith invented an entire archetype of rock ‘n’ roll. It was an interesting to me to take that two-dimensional persona and realize that there’s an actual persona behind it. He plays the character. Persona is a mask that allows you to play a role in public and be somebody else privately. At the same time, it becomes something that pigeonholes you.
When did Netflix get involved?
We cut together a little footage at the beginning that we showed to Netflix. We said, “If we’re going to do this, we have to go fast.” We solid to them as a short. It would have been an hour and 55 minutes or something. But then we just kept going and it somehow ended up longer. There was no realize for it to be any length, which is one of the nice things about Netflix. A couple of my documentaries are streaming on there and I know they do well —
You mean you’ve seen figures?
No, just anecdotally from what I hear back from people. From filmmakers whose films have lapsed from Netflix, I hear what kind of vacuum it creates. You realize what a powerful platform it is. There’s no doubt that for documentaries it’s been huge. It’s given documentaries a real place where people can actually access them. Given the choice, lots of people who may never have watched docs before are now binging on them. So that’s a good thing.
Does that put you at ease about questions surrounding audiences for documentaries?
I knew there’d be an audience for this one because it was Keith Richards. But with “Best of Enemies,” nobody wanted to fund that film for years. It was my little labor of love project I was really into but there was no evidence anyone else would care.
Why was that?
Everybody thought that it wasn’t relevant, or they didn’t understand the relevance of it. Nobody under 40 knows who William F. Buckley or Gore Vidal were. These are two guys sitting and talking 50 years ago in a room. Is that really something we want to see a documentary about? I’d say, “No, no…it’s about today.” When the film came out, the most common comment we got was, “I can’t believe how relevant it is.”
A lot of filmmakers talk about “selling directly to Netflix.” What do you make of that?
I want every film to find the right audience. “Keith Richards” never had theatrical ambitions. Like I said, it was this moment in time, and we made it quickly. It’s around the world now. That’s perfect for this project. The Yo-Yo Ma project or “Best of Enemies” — those films need to seep into the culture, where people can slowly find them. Different films need different distribution to honor what they are.
You’re a real pragmatist.
Maybe it’s because I used to be a journalist. You do the film, you put everything into it, and you move on. After tomorrow, I’ll probably never talk about it again.