(Photo: Keith Richards and Morgan Neville meet the press at the Toronto International film Festival. Credit: WireImage/Getty for TIFF)
For someone who once proclaimed, via an album title, that “talk is cheap,” rock and roll icon Keith Richards seemed more than happy to discuss one of his latest projects, the Netflix documentary Keith Richards: Under the Influence, making its world premiere last night (September 17) at TIFF ahead of today’s Netflix debut.
Perhaps predictably, a good chunk of the press corps assembled had other ideas, and so the Rolling Stones co-founder and guitarist fielded questions about everything from rap (he still doesn’t like it) to the secrets behind his trademark five-string, open tuning technique (“Five strings, three notes, two hands, one a**hole”) and of course, his relationship with Mick Jagger (they’re still pals).
Thankfully, moderator and TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers was able to bring the discussion back to the reason why Richards and Influence helmer Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) were facing the media – the film itself. The doc, produced by RadicalMedia and Neville’s Tremolo Productions, was originally intended to be a shorter work, focusing primarily on the recording of Richards’ first solo album in 23 years, Crosseyed Heart (also released today, September 18). In fact, both Richards and his manager Jane Rose were adamant about not making a documentary.
“I didn’t see the point at that particular time because I’m busy making a record,” said Richards, “and I felt, ‘This is an extra burden.’ But once I got talking to Morgan, we agreed on a few things, and he shot a few things for a video for one of the tracks [Trouble], and by then, the thing had sort of taken us over… Sometimes you realize this thing is bigger than both of you, and you’ve got to finish it and carry on.”
Neville, who had interviewed Richards in the past for 2004′s Muddy Waters: Can’t Be Satisfied, said that out of the initial shoots in the studio, he was inspired to go deeper. “I listened to some of the music he was doing and I heard these incredible influences, from soul and blues to jazz, and I decided to bring a pile of vinyl albums over to his house, and we ended up just talking about albums for a couple of hours.
“Jane wound up calling afterwards and said, ‘Keith had a great time, I had a great time… but you’re not making a documentary,’” Neville added. “And here we are!”
Richards, decked out in a rock star-worthy ensemble of snakeskin jacket and mirrored aviator shades, and his bandmates in the Stones have been featured in several docs – from Brett Morgen’s Crossfire Hurricane to Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues. But working with Neville, he said, was more of an “organic” experience and one he eventually was keen to take. Familiarity with Neville’s past work, particularly 20 Feet From Stardom (which Richards referred to as “12 Steps From Stardom,” to titters from some of the journalists), and the director’s love of music helped seal the deal.
Once Richards and his manager warmed up to the idea, Neville set out to follow him to various locales that shaped his musical vocabulary – Chicago, Nashville – and talk to other musicians that have served as influences and contemporaries, such as blues legend Buddy Guy and Tom Waits, who Richards lovingly described at the presser as “a piece of work.” Footage of Richards and Waits used in the film was shot on Rose’s iPhone, and Neville says Richards’ archive of home movies and rare photos was opened up for his inspection and potential use.
The project marked the first time Neville has worked directly with Netflix, and the director said the process has been “great, and I’m not just saying that because they paid for this film.
“There’s been a seismic shift in the documentary world and part of it is people know where to find them now,” he added. “Netflix has opened up a whole new audience for these types of films.
“For [the premiere] they tell me it’s going to be in umpteen countries at the same time,” he remarked. “I think that’s pretty cool, and I can’t wait to see what happens.”
“Me too,” quipped Richards.
As for what Neville learned about Richards over the course of filming, the self-proclaimed music nerd said he saw perhaps a kindred spirit.
“Even rock stars have their own rock stars – they’re fans too,” Neville said. “To me, I see somebody who is a music fan and gets their nourishment from music.”
“The whole film is kind of an amble,” he continued. “I kind of think of it as a scrapbook. I wanted it to feel like a hang; you’re sitting around with Keith, talking about music and about life.”