Passion Defined: Keith Richards remains Under The Influence of inspiration.

While beautifully shot, Under the Influence, directed by Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Johnny Cash’s America), is not merely a pun on the notorious substance abuse issues of Keith Richards’ past. This film is so much more than that- it serves as an homage to musicians and family alike who came before him, shaping the career of The Rolling Stones, as well as his solo efforts, and to those whom they worked alongside through the years, mastering their purely Rock and Roll, signature sound. Keith’s jubilant and entertaining recollection of his years in making music proves that he remains not only fueled by passion but reveals that he will continue to play music “as long as I can get away with it”, assuring fans that his nearly 55 year relationship with Rock and Roll is not over, just yet. One’s heart would be an icy tundra if not smiling along with Keith (and possibly shedding a tear) through this journey of musical history as it applies to Keith Richards’ love of his chosen medium- “It might only be rock and roll, but I’ll tell you what, that’s the shit”.

Under The Influence spans over three major cities- Chicago, Nashville, and fittingly, begins in New York City, the launch pad for The Rolling Stones’ British Invasion of the United States. By 1964, The Rolling Stones were influencing America’s radio waves and culture- something that their forefathers had only ever wished to achieve- and had creeped down into the Heartland, sprawling all the way out to California. Keith proclaims that when their leather boots hit US soil, “America was the biggest market in the goddamn world, the fucking crowning glory” and that the band was “amazed by the warmth and welcome” upon their arrival. He also does not shy from commenting on the painfully segregated social landscape of the south when they arrived, however, stating that while they got “the last taste of that bullshit… Black America took us more to the arts.” In looking back at the Stones’s and his music, he realized just “how steeped I am in American folk music and jazz and blues,” going so far as to admit that “[t]hat’s the stuff America’s given the world, bigger than H bombs.”

When reminiscing over the many decades of making music, which, any creative process enthusiast will enjoy the bounty of knowledge that he brings to the film (demonstrating, for instance, how he laid the “overloaded acoustic guitars” down on a 1967 Norelco tape recorder to record “Street Fighting Man” as opposed to using any electric guitars), Keith Richards is sure to speak in length about the range of genres that he pulls from, evident also on his latest album, Crosseyed Heart. He confesses in the documentary that this new album is a “tipping of his hat” to all of those with whom he drew inspiration over the years. The title track, is specifically and clearly a tribute to Robert Johnson. And, most notably of these influential genres are the Blues. In fact, he’s nearly smitten when talking about his experiences with Muddy Waters, Richards proclaims that “of all the people I’ve met, he is a father to me” and that playing in 1981 at the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago with Waters was as if “I died and gone to heaven.” He humbly recounts the first meeting with Muddy Waters in 1964 at Chess records, that when they met, Waters had been white washing the ceiling, but took a moment to thank The Stones for all that they were doing. Richards recalls that being a huge moment, because not only was bringing blues BACK to the American people The Rolling Stones’ “puritanical mission,” but “[Muddy Waters] was always a gentleman no matter what position you found him in”. He even speaks endearingly of that fateful train ride to art school, back in the early 60’s when he ran into Mick Jagger after a number of years, and, to his delight, Jagger had “a full deck” under his arm- Chuck Berry (“Incredible lyrics… [Berry] has influenced every guitar player whether they know it or not”) and The Best of Muddy Waters. That same day, of course, that the pair had decided to give it a go with a band, going on to form The Rolling Stones. The film depicts a moment where Richards meets up with Buddy Guy to shoot pool and drink White Lightening, as any two long-time friends would, and Buddy admiringly recalls the moment when The Stones refused to go onto the Shindig musical variety show unless they could bring Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters on with them- to which Buddy admits having cried, as he’d never before seen any of his peers in the blues scene on TV before that moment “thanks to these people” as he and Richards embrace. The scene closes with Buddy Guy affirming: “Do you have to be black or white to play the blues? Hell no, man.”

Granted, not all of Richards’ memories are glowing moments that he’d like to display on a mantel. He has an honest moment referring to the dark period in the late 80’s with Mick Jagger as “World War Three”. Suitably, that moment is set against a dark, gray snowy day on the grounds of one of his many properties peppered throughout the US and UK. He brings that moment full circle, however, in speaking of his solo career: “I was walking outside of The Stones, I realized, ‘That’s my home’. We set them up and gave them to the people, and I can’t let the people down.” What is admirable about both the director and Richards throughout this film is that both seemed to want to focus on the celebration of a life well lived through Rock and Roll-working with people like Tom Waits and Chuck Berry, writing music for The Stones’ Exile on Main Street with the alliance and supervision of Gram Parsons, learning to play piano from Ian Stewart who he credits with starting The Rolling Stones, and his 30 plus year working relationship with producer and musician Steve Jordan. Inappropriate would have been some pity party, depressing the audience with dissecting and wallowing in all of the highly profiled and very public missteps Richards has made over the years as they pertained to drug abuse. And what seems to elude certain publications who see this documentary as a vague representation of Richards is that, as people age, the last thing they want to do is reel in the self-inflicted misfortunes of their youth- time becomes much more valuable on the back nine of life (though, some may argue that Richards is defying scientific confines of age, and may still be putting on the third hole of the front nine). Keith clearly embraces aging, however, talking about his family, legacy, and his grandchildren with a warmth and tenderness that the public had certainly yet to see of Richards.

Rich with music history and nuances, it would be impossible to not watch this documentary more than several times, if not simply for the inspiration evident throughout the film and that one can pull from Keith’s passion for creating music, still, after all of these many years in the business. It is moving to see Keith Richards remain so utterly and profoundly stirred by Bluesmen who he claims were “true gentleman” and Rock and Rollers like Elvis who turned a post-World War II era “from black and white to Technicolor”. Further, it is proof that cultivating and taking the time to master your creative outlet is a lifelong journey, one that a certain 71 year old admits is never over: “Music is…undefinable and no body’s ever gonna have the answer to it, but it’s great fun exploring it.”

  • *Photo Credit: Billboard Magazine.
  • All quotes taken from Keith Richards: Under The Influence
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