I like Keith Richards' singing voice, but I think I like his speaking voice even more. It's simultaneously smooth and tough (like a silk sheet covered with gravel), and there's almost always a trace of mischief in the slow, sly way he says things. Then there are those frequent moments when his words melt into a hearty chuckle so infectious that you can't stop yourself from grinning. It's a pleasure just to listen to him talk, which is a good thing for Keith Richards: Under the Influence: if Richards were a less immediately compelling figure, the doc would also certainly be a nap-inducing bore.
Early on, Under the Influence finds a halfway point between traditional Wikipedia-style biography (complete with lots of 16mm clips of Elvis Presley, old diners and tour buses) and loose, casual hangout movie, but as it proceeds, the latter side of the film begins to dominate. Richards offers warm anecdotes from his early days, talks about his influences, gives us a little insight into his musical process (“You let a song find you... you don't chase after it like, c'mere, you little son of a bitch!”) and considers some of the life lessons he's learned.
All of this is perfectly pleasant material, particularly if you already know and like Richards. However, director Morgan Neville doesn't really seem to have any particular perspective on Richards, nor does he seem interested in trying to push his subject beyond surface-level pleasantries. This is a man who has lived one hell of a life (you can see it in the lines of his magnificently weathered face), but the colorful exploits of his past are rarely a topic of conversation in the film. We never hear the questions Richards is asked, but based on the answers, I'm guessing they were along the lines of, “So how do you feel about being a big rock star?” and “Where do you get your inspiration from?”
On the plus side, the film makes awfully nice background noise, delivering an enjoyable mix of Rolling Stones tunes (not the obvious ones!), old blues numbers by artists Richards admires and recording session performances from Richards' solo album Crosseyed Heart (this allows Tom Waits to make a guest appearance and offer the observation that the noise musicians create when they're tuning up and getting ready to play is, “a song that will never be played again”). Eventually, the film mostly begins to feel like an extended promo for that album, which gives one the sense that this probably should have been included as a bonus DVD on the deluxe edition release. This is a for-fans-only trifle, not a rich, definitive portrait.
Keith Richards: Under the Influence
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 81 minutes
Release Year: 2015