Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville has chronicled the life and work or artists such as Iggy Pop, Carole King, Burt Bacharach, James Taylor and more. However, likely nothing could’ve prepared him for taking on one of the biggest rock ‘n roll legends of all time. “Keith Richards: Under The Influence,” which made its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (our review) before hitting Netflix this past weekend, finds Neville profiling the one and only Keith Richards, the iconic guitarist for the Rolling Stones. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect cinematic subject, and in many ways, it’s something of a circle completed for the director.
I recently got on the phone with Neville for the latest installment of our Movies That Changed Your Life feature, and his passion for British cinema and music early on makes him the perfect person to guide viewers through the life and music of the one and only Keef. So after you’ve watched the doc, or as a way to prepare, check out my chat with Neville about the movies that shaped him below.
What’s the first movie you remember seeing in a theater?
It was “Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory.” That film made a deep impact on me. I now have children and you realize just how dark that movie is. I think that had a serious imprint for better or worse on my young brain.
We ended up getting the soundtrack too and the songs are amazing. It became a presence in my childhood. So then I remember seeing it later, I think in college. Then as soon as my kids were old enough I showed it to them — they were probably still too young for me to show it to them [laughs]. But Gene Wilder is so amazing in that film. I’m a huge Gene Wilder fan, and all those Mel Brooks movies. I know I’m segueing here, but another one of those Mel Brooks movies that was one of my all time favorites was “The Producers.” I think my Dad had an early Betamax copy of that movie and I must have watched that movie ten times.
So what came first? Was it music obsession or film obsession? Where did they converge?
They come hand in hand. My Dad was obsessed with music and with movies. And very early on I think he felt like he needed to educated me [laughs]. So when I was a small kid we went though the history of screwball comedies. I was a huge Marx Brothers fan, I’d seen all of the Marx Brothers movies by the time I was 11, and this was when it was hard to see some of them. You’d have to catch them on Saturday afternoon matinees on television. I remember staying home one Saturday to see “A Day At The Races,” the last of the Marx Brothers films I hadn’t seen. But then we’d go on to film noir, but at the same time he was feeding me The Kinks and Bob Dylan and all this other stuff and taking me to concerts when I was way too young. So it was great. I had kind of an amazing childhood that way in terms of having endless culture in the house.
As you grew up what was a film that defined your adolescence?
I was sent to boarding school. And I remember seeing “If….,” the Lindsay Anderson film, and feeling like I really understood a lot of what the film was about, which is a little scary. And I was always a huge fan of British cinema. I got very deeply into British New Wave, even more than French New Wave, from “A Hard Day’s Night” through Lindsay Anderson and all of those great filmmakers. But the humor and the darkness of a lot of that stuff inspired me. And I remember at the high school or boarding school it felt really relevant to me.
What was the film that you watched where you realized that you wanted to be a filmmaker, to tell stories yourself?
I was part of the “Star Wars” generation, that movie came out when I was 9, I remember standing in line opening weekend to see it, and that’s all my friends and I talked about that summer. And I was one of those kids that got the Super 8 camera right then and started making movies. I did that for years. And at that time I was doing genre work, it wasn’t documentary. There were a lot of zombies and spaceships in those films. But, it taught me a lot. I was cutting Super 8 with a razor blade when I was 10 and 11 and there’s something about those films at that age. It hit me perfectly at that age and it opened up so many possibilities. And I was lucky enough that I could start doing that myself. We started making movies and showing them in my grade school. I remember in 8th grade showing a movie I made to the school assembly called “Mutants.” I didn’t realize at the time that I had a lot of fake blood in that movie and it was probably not appropriate to be showing to second graders [laughs].
After ‘Willy Wonka’ and all the Marx Brothers films, “Star Wars” must have felt like something completely new and mind blowing.
It felt so new at the time, and my Dad said, “This is all just based on westerns and Japanese movies.” And my Dad loved Westerns. So he put me through a whole course on John Ford and Howard Hawks and Budd Boetticher and all those people, which was fascinating and not something most of my friends cared about. That led me to [Sam] Peckinpah; I loved “The Wild Bunch” and Robert Mitchum, all of these kind of figures that as a 12-year-old, you wouldn’t normally connect with, but I did.
What’s the first movie that you became obsessed with or re-watched every year?
It was “Monty Python And The Holy Grail.” Again I was obsessed with British things — the British invasion, British films and British comedy — and I had all the Monty Python records. I can’t remember what came first, ‘Holy Grail’ or the records, but that movie I watched over and over and loved. It’s one of the great things about Monty Python is that the references are so obscure that it works on different levels. If you get them it works on one level, if you don’t get them it’s still fun on a different level, because of its sheer absurdity and I loved that. I remember my Dad driving me two hours to see “Life of Brian” the weekend it opened as there were protestors in front of the Mann’s Chinese Theater. But those were major events in my childhood.
I was obsessed with the ‘Holy Grail’ as well, and I found that as I got older a lot of the jokes that I missed when I was younger are some of my favorite ones now.
That’s the great thing, it’s so dense that you don’t exhaust it, there’s always more to find in there, and it’s so quick. And I just loved that humor. One of my other all time favorites was “Bedazzled,” the Dudley Moore/Peter Cook version which is such a brilliant movie to this day, and just packed with those jokes that take you years to fully get all of them.
Is there a movie that always makes you emotional or makes you cry when you see it?
The film I’m thinking about doesn’t quite answer that but it’s a film that I cannot pass by when it’s on television, and means a lot to me — “All the President’s Men.” I grew up thinking I was going to be a journalist, working on my high school paper, my college paper, I worked as a journalist after college, and I am a big believer in the power of journalism. To me, they were the ultimate heroes. So I just felt like that was something that spoke to me about what I wanted to do with my life. And it’s interesting because as the years went on, journalists went from being the heroes to being the villains. And you start thinking about how journalists are portrayed in movies, whether it’s “Natural Born Killers” or so many movies where the journalists are no longer viewed as the good guys. I keep going back to something like “All the President’s Men,” which I’ve watched so many times because to me it’s the best articulation of the mission of being a journalist and why we do it. I still think of what I do now as being a journalist. Documentary to me is just 3D journalism. You have more tools to tell your story but the principals are the same.
What’s a movie that you saw and gained a better appreciation for when you watched it a second time or a third time?
In our house I was always being shown movies that were probably way too advanced for me. And a film that I saw very young that I remember being kind of disturbed by was “Point Blank.” It’s now one of my favorite films. It’s like an art house take on a gangster movie. And it’s so brilliant but when I first saw it as a kid I didn’t know what the hell was going on. It just scared me, but now I think it’s one of the greatest films ever made.
It’s an oddly paced movie, and there’s not that much story. Lee Marvin wants to get even, end of story. And there are these kind of weird, artistic flourishes on it, but there’s a scene in the movie where Lee Marvin’s walking through an airport and it’s intercutting with Tim meeting up with the woman who had done him wrong, cutting back and forth and it’s just brilliant. But I didn’t know what to make of it the first time I saw it, but now every time I walk through that hallway at LAX with that colored, mosaic wall, I think about Lee Marvin.
What is the most memorable movie going experience you’ve ever had?
I remember seeing “Batman” in 1989 with Michael Keaton, the Tim Burton Batman. It was opening night in Times Square in a giant theater and we waited — in fact a friend of mine waited the entire afternoon and I met him after work and we all went into the theater and the crowd was so amped up that they had whole flanks of policemen in the theater with batons and it really felt like it was going to turn into a riot. And when the movie started people just screamed the entire time and you couldn’t hear anything that was happening in the movie. It was a really memorably strange experience just because I’ve never been in a theater that’s been so on edge and that stuck with me. It felt it was dangerous to be there.