'Keith Richards: Under The Influence': TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Indulgent rockumentary full of sympathy for an old devil.

Oscar-winner Morgan Neville takes a sentimental journey through blues and rock history with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards in this Netflix documentary.

In his autumn years, Keith Richards has acquired a monumentally interesting face for the big screen, all sun-scorched cracks and deep crevices, like a cross between a living fossil and a partially embalmed crocodile. Cackling, leering and shamelessly self-mythologizing as he skips back through his half-century in music, the Rolling Stones guitarist makes an engaging interviewee in this Netflix-bound documentary, which premieres in Toronto this week as a promotional launch-pad for his first solo album in 23 years, Crosseyed Heart.

The director is Morgan Neville, who won an Academy Award two years ago with his uplifting documentary about unsung backing singers, 20 Feet From Stardom. Ostensibly a celebration of the blues, soul, reggae and country music that inspired Richards throughout his career, Under The Influence feels like a logical sister film. But it is also a much slighter affair, fawning in tone, unrevealing about its star, and ultimately little more than an extended commercial for his new album. That said, it is an effortless pleasure to watch, with a huge readymade audience among Netflix subscribers. Long-standing Stones fans are also likely to indulge the grizzled old goat one more time, just like we have done for the last three decades or more.

Album recording sessions with drummer and producer Steve Jordan form the meat of the film, which Neville and cinematographer Igor Martinovic paint in warm, luscious tones using a range of vintage lenses. Richards shows off his still-sharp guitar skills, including a surprisingly dexterous digression into flamenco. Longtime friends and collabroators Tom Waits and Buddy Guy make cameo appearances as the guitarist revisits some legendary stops on his musical journey, including Chicago's Chess Records and Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. There are also a few nicely counterintuitive touches, including footage of Richards strolling through lush woodland to a bracing blast of Mozart.

Neville dutifully includes extended cuts from Crosseyed Heart, some agreeably sloppy and soulful, mostly pedestrian blues-rock. But he also smuggles as much Stones material as he can reasonably get away with into the film, including archive footage of the band recording Sympathy for the Devil, touring the Deep South in their swashbuckling prime, and jamming onstage with Muddy Waters.

Richards sportingly recycles some much-told anecdotes from ancient rock folklore, including his historic meeting with Mick Jagger on a train, and being punched by his musical hero Chuck Berry: "I was one of Chuck's greatest hits," he laughs. His longstanding rift with Jagger is briskly dismissed as the natural bickering of brothers who love each other deep down. Obviously.

Under The Influence touches briefly on racial politics and cultural appropriation, with Richards drawing a crucial distinction between rock'n'roll and rock, calling the latter a "white man's version" of the former. The guitarist clearly has an easy rapport with African-American artists, who warmly thank the Stones for reviving interest in R&B among U.S. audiences. Which is sweet, but a little more in-depth unpicking of this prickly subject might have given Neville's film some much-needed bite and weight.

Richards and the Stones are such universally revered cultural institutions nowadays that a serious, heavyweight, critical documentary about them would be a rare pleasure to watch, even for fans like myself. Under The Influence is not that film. But you can't always get what you want.

Production Companies: Radical Media, ‚ÄčTremolo Production
Cast: Keith Richards, Steve Jordan, Tom Waits, Buddy Guy, Waddy Wachtel
Director: Morgan Neville
Producers: Morgan Neville, Justin Wilkes, Jane Rose, Sara Enright
Cinematographer: Igor Martinovic
Editor: Joshua L. Pearson
Music supervisors: Peter Afterman, Margaret Yen
Sound: Dave O'Donnell, Eddie O'Connor
Rated 14A, 82 minutes