Spinning records with Keith Richards is not only an exceedingly pleasant way to spend an afternoon, it's turned out to be the gateway for director Morgan Neville into Keith Richards: Under the Influence, his new documentary on the Rolling Stones guitarist.
The documentary -- which premieres at Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, the night before its debut on Netflix -- started out as a piece to promote Crosseyed Heart, Richards' first solo album in 23 years, out Friday. But as Neville, who won an Oscar for directing 20 Feet From Stardom, spent more time with Richards, the short film developed into a feature-length documentary that stands separate from the album.
After hearing the blues, country and reggae influences on Crosseyed Heart, Neville took a giant pile of vinyl records to Richards' house. "We just spent a couple of hours talking about albums, and, as a music geek, it was a pretty amazing experience to have that kind of conversation," Morgan says, before fanboying out a little. "It was just a day I'll never forget. Of the thousands of interviews I've done, it was near the top. It was being able to communicate with someone on a level where you share a passion and all the other stuff between rock star and interviewer or filmmaker goes away."
He kept shooting, meeting Richards during the Rolling Stones' summer tour in Chicago, Nashville and New York (where the movie captures Richards jamming with Crosseyed producer Steve Jordan and director Waddy Wachtel) and making the movie in a much shorter time span than usual. "The film was so much fun to do because in a way we kind of liberated ourselves from a lot of things we normally do," Neville says. He had previously interviewed Richards for Can't Be Satisfied, a 2003 Muddy Waters documentary he and Robert Gordon made, as well as co-produced the 2012 Rolling Stones doc Crossfire Hurricane.
Realizing they were on to something special, RadicalMedia, which produced the film with Morgan's TremoloProductions, approached Netflix with some early footage. The outlet agreed to fund the doc, making Under the Influence its second original music documentary following this spring's What Happened, Miss Simone.
Neville calls the finished film "a scrapbook. … This is essentially what it would be like to hang out with Keith and talk about music and life. It's not a tightly knit story, it's not a novel."
For someone who has lived his life so much in the public eye, Richards remains surprisingly unguarded, Neville says. "It's kind of made him bulletproof because if you don't harbor secrets, then nobody can ever say anything about you," he says. "It's kind of liberating."
Richards' only feedback to Neville upon viewing the finished film? "Don't change anything." "I knew enough about him and [manager] Jane [Rose] to know that they were going to defer to me, and I have to say there was an incredible amount of deference," Neville says, "but to hear that from somebody like [him] is so unusual. I just know from living in the music-doc world and hearing a million stories, too, that people could have a thousand qualms with everything."
Neville hopes the film leaves the viewer with a portrait of where Richards is today. "He's in such a good place right now," the director says. "I think you get a really good sense of who he is and where he's at."