Everyone knows about the Rolling Stones — after all, they were only one of the best-known bands to come out of London in the ’60s. Of course, being so popular, there have been quite a few documentaries made about them, like Crossfire Hurricane, Shine a Light, and Stones in Exile. So what makes Netflix’s new release Keith Richards: Under the Influence different? Simply put, this documentary focuses on Richards and his influences.
Released the same day as his new album, Crosseyed Heart, it’s beautifully made, and Keef says some really memorable, quotable things in this documentary, like how music is “something that binds people together through centuries, through millennia.” This makes me think about the possibility that the Rolling Stones will be something that your grandkids will love just like you love them. Richards speaks his mind, is a great storyteller, and that’s what makes him great at carrying a whole documentary devoted to him and his life. And, maybe most importantly for Richards and the filmmakers, this documentary makes me want to listen to his new album.
The film begins with classical music and images of nature, trees, and flowers before Richards is shown walking through a forest and a voice over talks about how, like many rock stars, when he was young, he never pictured himself living a long life. (His viewpoint about that, however, changed by the time he turned 31.) The opening line — “Life’s a funny thing, you know” — really stuck in my head, as did its accompanying song, “Blue and Lonesome” by Little Walter, from Chicago’s famous Chess Records.
Throughout the doc, Richards is portrayed as an eternally hardworking musician and extremely detailed in what he does. Interviews with producers he’s worked with and musicians like Tom Waits really give a new insight to Keef and what he’s really like. He isn’t afraid to acknowledge the excellence of American folk, jazz, and blues musicians and how much they’ve shaped him as a musician, even adding that he felt that those genres were easy to relate to because American music was influenced by music of the British Isles.
Many musicians talk about their parents and the roots of their musical progression, and Keith Richards is no exception. He talks about how his mum had really good taste in music, even though, for those who aren’t aware, there wasn’t much choice in 1950s British radio like there is today. Even under those conditions, Richards’ mum made it work and shared what she loved with Keef. Not surprisingly, he even admits to liking some Mozart “here and there.” It’s also a lot of fun seeing him play music that influenced him — from the blues to Spanish guitar, his multi-instrumental talent is truly remarkable.
One highlight of this documentary is his guitar technician showing off Richards’ guitar collection — including one axe from the 1920s — and explaining how important it is to Keef. Another important, cool moment is Richards’ story about how he went from a little kid idolizing America because of the movies and music to actually seeing it right in front of him and experiencing the different regions and all the unique things about them. Living in Chicago, I have to say it was really neat to hear him talk about it and how he went from being influenced by Chess Records musicians to recording at Chess Studios and meeting his musical idol, Muddy Waters. He even talks about country music and how the Rolling Stones spent time with Gram Parsons, and how much Parsons influenced Exile On Main Street. Richards describes rock ‘n’ roll as “where country music and the blues sort of collided.”
The archival footage is really cool to see, and I feel that it really made the documentary. It was cool to see that ’50s and ’60s aesthetic worked into the documentary alongside the modern images. The soundtrack, which is a mix of the Rolling Stones’ and Richards’ diverse personal influences, is expectedly great, and it’s a special plus to see the blues being appreciated.
Overall, Under the Influence is a great watch, and a must-watch for all Rolling Stones and/or Richards fans. Even if you’re a novice or not super into the Stones, it’s really interesting to hear about all the different influences that played a role in their music — and the music of so many of their peers. And, as to be expected with a documentary about a character as colorful as Keith Richards, there are plenty of surprises to keep you engrossed. So fire up the Netflix, settle in, and take a musical journey with a more-than-qualified tour guide.