Here’s the thing – you don’t watch Keith Richards: Under The Influence, you experience it. For each of its 81 minutes you are witness to a vitality that is so complete it makes you want to get up and do things, great things, heck, anything. You feel it when you watch the 72-year-old Richards play music and you feel it especially when you watch archival footage of the Rolling Stones and marvel at the foresight of whoever it was that made the decision to document the band’s journey in such detail.
I know the film doesn’t tell the whole story and is probably designed to only keep the best parts in, but I’m not complaining when the best parts involve lots of stories and lots of music. Mr. Richards is generous with the laughs and the riffs. He tells stories with ease, almost always finishing with his big, multi-part laugh, and he plays music with the enthusiasm of someone for whom this is brand new. Those were my favourite parts, watching him pick up an instrument and just play. Sometimes he plays songs, sometimes just snippets, and the way he shapes all of it into music is beautiful. The segment where he plays piano is a great example – he laughs after he finishes playing a ridiculously expressive piece and says he’s not really a pianist, he just uses it “as a paintbox”, adding touches here and there.
The stories and the music are interspersed with conversations with other music greats – Tom Waits, Steve Jordan (who also produced Crosseyed Heart, Richards’s latest solo album) and Buddy Guy with whom he plays a round of pool as they reminisce. We follow Richards to Nashville, into the Ryman auditorium, the home of the Grand Ole Opry – “beautiful woodwork” he comments as he climbs the stairs on to the stage that is the holy grail of country music. When he goes back into the studio and plays a song you can hear the pedal steel get pride of place.
A lot of us are wary of documentaries about legendary figures because they feel like puff pieces, the story shaped by a team and vetted by the subject to present a carefully constructed image. I’m not saying Under The Influence is free of such strategising, but given all the caveats – and more if you’d like to be extra cynical – it is still a fascinating account of a life well-lived and music well-played. You can’t ask for much more from a viewing experience can you?