At the gala premiere Morgan Neville, Oscar winner for 20 Feet From Stardom and one of the most prolific and important music documentarians of all time, said that even Keith’s manager thought they wouldn’t be able to make a movie. For all his talent, for all his accomplishments, Keith Richards is a slippery target, hidden behind the persona of the drunken immortal that somehow has outlived his vices and continues to hammer out tunes on his guitar. The title, Under the Influence, conveys his insatiability for the sound of Black America and the oft celebrated intoxicants that sometimes overshadowed his tremendous talent.
The framing device of the film is the recording of Keef’s new record, and we’re treated to scenes of him thumping away with Steve Jordan, Waddy Wachtel and the rest of the X-pensive Winos band (again a name that toys with our perspectives of the man’s image). The music is sharp even if his voice is even more craggy than before. There’s a swing to his playing that’s still there, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the blues is well tested and articulated.
We get a bit of a chronological overview – some shots of the Stones, ties to working with Chuck Berry for the Hail, Hail Rock ‘N Roll project – but the film’s sweetest moments are the man at the piano, tinkling away on a country or a reggae lick, or (best of all) his admission that he’s a better bass player than a guitarist.
Neville knows how to capture these gems and set them within the context of a film that’s far from just a series of these moments. There’s a flow to the film which is engaging, a scope that’s highly cinematic.
Yes, at times it feels like we’d want more from the hits and less the new stuff, the bane of any classic artist trying to do the new anchored down by the old. Neville manages this balance well, always focused on Keith’s story as opposed to the bigger narrative that he played such a vital part in.
Finally, there’s Tom Waits – quite simply, I could listen to that man talk about anything for hours on end, but to hear him talk lovingly and convincingly about his friend Keith makes me adore both men that much more. Just as Baez’s interview in Scorsese’s Dylan doc made that film even more transcendent, here we’ve got Waits taking things up just that other level into something truly special. Under the Influence will get under your skin, and it’s a fine foray that’s both honest and insightful into the world of Keith Richards.