Keith Richards’ Life is the quintessential rock ’n’ roll memoir: All the debauchery and excess from decades on the road with The Rolling Stones is laid bare on its pages. If you’re interested in Richards’ drug regimen during a particular ’70s tour, or his various run-ins with the law, or his groupies by the dozen, look no further than that 2010 autobiography, because you won’t find any of it in Under The Influence. The documentary’s title refers not to the substances Richard ingested by the metric ton, but to the music he absorbed into his bloodstream as a youth, fueling the creation of some of the greatest rock music of all time.
There’s nothing wrong with that, especially since the more outrageous stories of the Stones’ glory days have been well-documented over time. Under The Influence isn’t a whitewash; it’s simply not interested in rehashing the well-worn legend. Where Morgan Neville’s documentary occasionally stumbles is in the moments when it comes across as a stealth infomercial for Richards’ new album (Crosseyed Heart, released the same day Under The Influence debuts on Netflix) than a revelatory exploration of its subject’s musical roots.
Neville’s film opens with Richards at his country estate (complete with guitar-adorned weathervane), contemplating mortality. He says he never expected to live past 30—and he was hardly alone in that belief—but somewhere along the way he become rock’s most unlikely survivor. Our first glimpse of his worn, craggy visage comes as no shock because he’s looked this way for decades (although his teeth look considerably younger than the rest of him); likewise, his raspy croak of a voice is nothing new. At 71, he’s at the very least still smoking and drinking, but with The Rolling Stones in hibernation, his musical output has trailed off. Lured out of semi-retirement by producer-drummer Steve Jordan, Richards begins recording a back-to-basics new album, drawing on some of his longtime heroes for inspiration.
The two names that come up most often are Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. It’s longstanding Stone lore (confirmed again here by Richards) that a chance meeting between Mick and Keith on a train—when the latter spotted the former holding Berry and Waters albums—cemented the Glimmer Twins’ bond. The early Stones sound was built on the fusion of Waters’ muscular electric blues and Berry’s foundational rock-and-roll riffs. To this day Richards gets a gleam in his eye when he drops the needle on some vintage Waters vinyl, and his debt to Berry was eventually repaid when Richards became his bandleader (and target of ire) for the 1987 Taylor Hackford documentary Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’N’ Roll. When several members of the Stones appeared onstage with Waters at Chicago’s Checkerboard Lounge in 1981, Richards recalls it as being the only time he and bandmate Ron Wood coordinated their wardrobe. They wore white shirts with black vests; it’s a shame Mick Jagger didn’t get the memo, as he took the stage in a red jogging suit he surely must regret to this day.
Although they appear in vintage clips—including a classic moment from a 1964 episode of Hollywood Palace in which host Dean Martin rolls his eyes while saying, “The Rolling Stones, aren’t they great?”—Richards’ longtime bandmates are nowhere to be seen in the contemporary footage. That’s not really a problem, since talking-head interviews with Jagger or Charlie Watts would have the effect of warping Under The Influence into yet another Stones retrospective along the lines of 2012’s Crossfire Hurricane. But it does speak to the fact that the group has been more corporate entity than band of brothers for quite some time. Instead, Richards is seen recording his new material with musicians he’s been working with since his first solo album (1988’s Talk Is Cheap), including Jordan and guitarist Waddy Wachtel.
Another frequent collaborator over the past several decades, Tom Waits, characteristically offers the most colorful assessment of Richards, calling him “an archaeologist who insists on locality data” and “a London cabbie who has the knowledge.” He’s also surprisingly frank about the need for people like Richards and himself to adopt a public persona in order to maintain some semblance of normality in their private lives: “It’s a bit of a ventriloquist act.” Waits’ all-too-brief appearances are enough to make you wish for a similar documentary centered on him.
Not that Richards isn’t entertaining in his own right, making pilgrimages to holy sites like Chicago’s Chess Records and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, or explaining how he got the vibrant “Street Fighting Man” sound by plugging an acoustic guitar directly into a cassette recorder and then playing back the distorted result in the studio. His dissection of the recording of “Sympathy For The Devil” and its evolution from Dylanesque ballad to “samba-type” number to the apocalyptic rocker we all know is fascinating, but it does his new material no favors to juxtapose the vintage footage of that session with the recording of sturdy but unremarkable new tunes like “Robbed Blind” and “Love Overdue.”
Seeing the logo for Richards’ own label Mindless Records at the beginning of Under The Influence is your first clue that this documentary is a retrospective doubling as a promotional item. No doubt Richards would be happy to turn viewers onto his old favorites like Howlin’ Wolf and Graham Parsons, but he wants to move some units, too. That whiff of commerce would be easier to take if the new material were more compelling, but every second of screen time devoted to the crunchy, pleasant enough single “Trouble” takes away another opportunity to hear that sandpaper voice on the music that really matters. Still, there’s enough of the latter to make Under The Influence worth a watch, even if it sometimes seems that Richards will still be around a hundred years from now to tell the tales.