Review: Keith Richards: Under the Influence
By Jane Simmons
Netflix’s documentary Keith Richards: Under the Influence follows ex Rolling Stones guitar player, Richards himself, as he records his new solo album Cross-Eyed Heart, and takes us on a tour of his blues music influences around America. A must-see for avid Keith Richards/Rolling Stones fans, but a self-indulgent whimsy for the average film viewer.
The first striking thing that one notices when watching this documentary—as the film opens with Richards in a studio singing his new song ‘Cross-Eyed Heart’ (the baffling title song of his new blues inspired album)—is how this documentary is very obviously a promotional puff-piece just to publicise his new album.
It reeks of amateur filmmaking—it seems to have absolutely no structure; aimlessly recording the ramblings and musings of Richards as he travels briefly from New York to Nashville, citing blues legends such as Muddy Waters as his “best pals, man,” before the next scene is quickly transitioned in.
The distinct fault with this documentary is that it does not explore Richards’ past in any depth whatsoever—you would hope in a documentary celebrating a huge musical icon, that the film would include hard-hitting, in-depth interviews from those who are closest to him—maybe someone like Mick Jagger or Ronnie Wood (why have they not been interviewed for the film?) You would hope that it would explore his inspirations in finer detail, documenting the exciting beginnings of his musical interest to its full development.
It also overlooks what Keith Richards is most famous for—his reputation as an absolute party animal and drug abuser. The film hints at his past by portraying him constantly with a fag and a glass of whisky on the go, but does not in any way explore his past demons or troubles. Instead, the documentary offers a whistle-stop tour of his childhood, a quick-fire guide to his favourite artists, and interviews from Pierre the guitar technician, which seem to have no relevance whatsoever in terms of building an impression of the icon.
One quality of Under the Influence however, is the archive footage of The Rolling Stones in play. This will delight true Rolling Stones fans, as you can see videos of ‘Street Fighting Man’ and ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ first being recorded in the studio—brilliant footage. There is a great clip of The Rolling Stones introducing one of their favourite blues artists onto a TV programme, as a cheeky Brian Jones quips “it’s about time you shut up and we have Howlin’ Wolf onstage!” Unfortunately, however, many of these clips are obscured by an intrusive soundtrack, the rasping commentary of Richards himself, and choppy editing.
It is in fact the editing itself that flags up how amateur this film is. Scenes are short with too many clips to watch—it is difficult to keep up with what in particular the scenes are trying to communicate. Although this is a film about a music icon and the soundtrack is very important, the way in which the sound is placed in the narrative is distracting, and drowns out the dialogue.
Netflix describes the film as a “rare, intimate journey” with the man behind the myths, a credible summary of the film. It is intimate indeed—the camera records Keith Richards alone with his guitar, the awkward filler conversation he makes as the camera rests on him after finishing an anecdote. For a true Richards fan, this will be a necessary watch, to cherish those in-between moments of their idol’s life. For the general film viewer who decides to give this film a watch after seeing it on Netflix, it is almost too intimate, embarrassingly close.
All in all, Keith Richards: Under the Influence is a disappointment. Maybe, if you are in adoration of Keith Richards, you would enjoy every second of it. Or maybe you would also be let down by the lack of exploration at Richards’ past, and the confusing narrative. In short, this documentary is a good watch for a diehard Rolling Stones fan, but not so much for anyone else.