From the beginning of Keith Richards: Under The Influence, Morgan Neville’s new documentary on the Rolling Stones guitarist, it’s clear Keith Richards still loves the same music that got him started more than 50 years ago. As Richard smiles listening to Little Walter’s “Blue and Lonesome” on vinyl, the 71-year-old living legend calls the power of the blues “mind-blowing” and later recalls the Stones’ origin story when he ran into Mick Jagger on a train in Kent, England, carrying Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry records under his arm.
But Under The Influence isn’t just about the blues; it’s about all of Richards’ influences — classical, jazz, country, reggae, even Spanish — and how it shaped him as a musician and influenced his brand new solo album, Crosseyed Heart, which was released Friday on Republic Records to coincide with the documentary’s add on Netflix.
In the film, his friend Tom Waits calls him a “locality data archaeologist” of music, “like a London cabbie who has the knowledge.” We also learn that Richards plays piano and considers himself a better bass player than he does a guitar player.
“For me, music is a center of everything,” Richards says in the film. “It’s something that binds people together through centuries, through millenniums.”
Richards and Neville were in Toronto for the world premiere screening at the Toronto International Film Festival Thursday and thrilled the sold-out house at the Princess of Wales Theatre with an onstage interview afterwards with TIFF’s doc programmer Thom Powers. “Wow, this is exciting,” said Neville beforehand. “We’ve never screened this film for anybody yet. I’ve not seen it with an audience. I’ve not seen it on it on a large screen so we figured we’d have a few people over, screen it to you tonight and see what you all think.”
Neville, a musical archaeologist himself, has made films about Johnny Cash, Stax Records, Hank Williams and Muddy Waters, among others. He won a 2014 Academy Award for Twenty Feet from Stardom and had another doc at this year’s TIFF called The Music of Strangers: Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. Under The Influence didn’t begin as a film at all, just a small piece at Richards’ home when Neville brought over a stack of vinyl and a camera crew. The two music geeks bonded.
“I had no idea that just doing that one thing with Morgan that day would lead into this film,” Richards said during the question and answer session. “I didn’t even know that I was going to make a record at that time; we were just feeling our way through and I think Under The Influence grew organically along with the record…. I was still just feeling my way with my great friend [producer, drummer, co-writer] Steve Jordan and several other great friends.”
Richards continued, explaining how the documentary and film influenced each other — as well as himself, personally, to push ahead with both.
“I was on the cusp of ‘Maybe this is an album coming up,’ which means I’ve got a lot more work. I wasn’t sure that I was cut out for it. But with Morgan’s influence, coming in at that time, the two things suddenly came together in a way. I keep using this word ‘organic,’ which is sometimes a little off-putting to me because I do a lot of un-organic things,” he said to big laughter. “I think it’s the right word for what we’re talking about.”
For all the clichés and assumptions about Richards — he jokes that the standard “Keith Richards image” is one of him smoking a joint with a bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand, cursing the fact that the liquor store is closed — Neville discovered a man who hasn’t bought in or paid attention to the “image” the world has created of him and made nothing off limits in the interviews for Under The Influence.
“We could talk about anything we wanted and that’s something that’s so unique about Keith in some ways,” said Neville. “He has this incredible sense of ‘I don’t give a fuck,’ which some people call Zen. I admire that. He lives at a level of being comfortable with himself that I aspire to.”
One of Richards’ knacks is this easy ability to tell a great story in a nutshell, full of color and detail, and end it with a punch line, such as the nugget in the doc about Chuck Berry slamming his hand in a guitar case when he dared touch the strings (“one of Chuck’s greatest hits!”) or somehow waking up at Howlin’ Wolf‘s house after a party that started at Muddy Waters’ place (“I got carried away; the party continued and I went with it”).
Under The Influence is the perfect set up for Richards’ third solo album and first since 1992, Crosseyed Heart, which tips its hat to everyone from Robert Johnson to Leadbelly and Hank Williams. For the film, Richards makes pilgrimages to the cities that shaped the Stones’ music and his own passion, including Chicago and Nashville. And as he meets his heroes, Richards seems as excited to meet them as Stones fans are to meet him. There’s a wonderful clip of him onstage with the late Muddy Waters and a present-day hang with Buddy Guy drinking corn whiskey and playing pool.
“I knew nothing about their lives,” Richards said when Powers points out there were no docs or books at that time to learn about the bluesmen. “I just imagined what a bluesman’s life was like. I found out they were pretty much like everybody else. These guys were hardworking men. Hey, you know but they were also musicians on the road so there is always that other side to the trip. But what I found out of the guys that I admired and listened to, when I actually met them, they were — almost every single one — a real gentleman.”
One of the most shocking moments in Under The Influence is at the start of the film when Jordan reveals that Richards told him he was thinking of retirement. The drummer confesses he suggested they get together once a week to jam, knowing that would put such talk behind him. When Powers asks him if he’s still thinking of retiring, Richards says, “This was just a ploy. I just wanted to get some action and I thought the only way I’m going to get some is to threaten to retire.”