'Somebody Up There Likes Me': Film Review | London 2019

Courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment
Plenty of substances, not much substance.

Oscar-winning director Mike Figgis shines a spotlight on Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, with backing vocals by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart and more.

A Rolling Stone gathers very little moss in Somebody Up There Likes Me, a slender documentary portrait of Ronnie Wood from Oscar-winning director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) which condenses the veteran rocker's half-century career into a brisk 71 minutes. Still a gloriously photogenic interview subject at 72, with his cadaverously craggy features and perennially jet-black plume of crow-feather hair, Wood muses here on his long service with the Stones, his sideline passion as a painter, his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction and more.

World premiering at the London Film Festival ahead of a planned commercial release next year, Somebody Up There Likes Me should prove an easy sell to undemanding Stones fans and music-friendly fest programmers. But for serious rock scholars and fans of quality documentaries in general, this lightweight vanity project will feel disappointingly thin and perfunctory.

Wood's life story reads like social history of post-war Britain. Born in 1947, the son of working-class “water gypsies” on the western fringes of London, he followed the long and winding road to rock superstardom via art college and a youthful infatuation with American R&B. By his early twenties, he was sharing a stage with Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck and others. A chain-smoking, heavy-drinking party animal for over 50 years, Wood finally paid the price for his vices. Over the past two decades he has checked into rehab at least six times, mainly for alcohol addiction.

Figgis skips through all this juicy material in an oddly haphazard manner, vague on chronology and light on detail. Wood's three marriages and six children barely merit a mention, barring a brief late appearance by his current wife Sally. His surgery for lung cancer in 2017, which inspired the film's title, is dispensed with in a 30-second aside. His side career as a visual artist serves as a framing device between interview sections, but his paintings only figure fleetingly in the film.

Besides interviewing Wood at length, Figgis also assembles an impressively stellar guest list of friends and collaborators including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Rod Stewart, singer Imelda May and artist Damien Hirst. Alas, most of these skillfully evasive media veterans offer only banal insights into the indestructible rocker's psyche. “He's very like me,” Richards cackles, “great immune system.” Figgis also recycles archive video of his own informal conversations with Led Zeppelin's notoriously thuggish manager Peter Grant and former Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren, both long dead, though this sequence feels like a superfluous detour only tangentially related to Wood.

Still sparky and youthful at 72, Wood himself comes across as an affable and cheery soul, but not much given to revealing self-examination. At one point, he summarizes his attitude to life with the deliciously Spinal Tap-like aphorism: “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Figgis shoots Somebody Up There Likes Me in conventional rock-doc style, with scarcely a hint of his signature formal experimentalism besides a brief split-screen sequence and an onscreen graphic depicting guitar chord tabs. The musical interludes include specially shot present-day performances alongside excellent archive footage drawn from Wood's long multi-band career. These vintage clips are the film's strongest selling point, although there is curiously little Stones material here. Wood's extra-curricular collaborations with legends like Bob Dylan, Prince, David Bowie and Aretha Franklin are also absent — yet more baffling omissions from a documentary that could have been a rich widescreen canvas, but ends up feeling like a watercolor sketch.

Production company: Eagle Rock Film Productions
Cast: Ronnie Wood, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Rod Stewart, Imelda May, Damien Hirst, Sally Wood
Director: Mike Figgis
Producers: Peter Worsley, Louis Figgis
Venue: London Film Festival

71 minutes