For the post-1960s rock and blues fan, Netflix’s new documentary “Keith Richards: Under the Influence” is a fascinating look into the legendary Rolling Stone guitarist and his music. Unfortunately, it loses a great deal of momentum by being bogged down with technical information where entertainment should have been.
Despite the documentary’s name, “Under the Influence” had absolutely nothing to do with drugs and Richards’ infamous appetite for them — at least, not in the conventional sense. Instead, it was an in-depth look into Richards’ persona and his love for music. For him, music is the drug. As he said, “Music is a center. It’s something that binds people together, through centuries, through millennia.”
The documentary opens up to a well-shot nature scene in a forest lush with flora. Richards walks through the forest barefoot during a voiceover monologue about getting older. Aged 71, he describes himself and his public image extraordinarily well with the following line: “You’re not grown up until the day you’re six feet under.”
Richards, born Dec. 18, 1943, is often referred to as one of the best guitarists of all time. The influence of the Stones and Richards’ guitar riffs is pervasive throughout multiple genres of music. His bluesy style is based fastidiously on American influences — a piece of knowledge that die-hard Stones fans will appreciate. Unfortunately, others may find this fact, along with the many others that make up the documentary, slightly tedious.
This point is where “Under the Influence” falls apart. It’s jam-packed with snippets of information regarding the technical aspect of his music. There are a lot of notables from the music industry, such as singer-songwriter and composer Tom Waits and composer and musical director Steve Jordan, that weigh in with opinions on the exciting technical aspects of Richards’ music.
That’s the problem, though — they’re technical. To a dedicated musician, they’re undoubtedly cool things to learn, but to the average music-listener or to an uneducated Stones fan, they’re useless pieces of information.
Even the catalogue of Richards’ guitars would be exciting for the guitar-playing viewer, but it doesn’t hold up for everyone else. In spending this much time talking about the things Richards and his fellow guitarists would love, the documentary runs the risk of alienating the rest of the audience.
That being said, “Under the Influence” is cinematically excellent. Shots of Richards touring, playing and even talking are all engaging and never feel redundant. A particularly exciting scene shows the compression and creation of a vinyl record with Muddy Waters singing “I Just Want to Make Love to You” over it. Another comes in the form of home footage of Richards participating shirtless in an impromptu reggae drum circle.
This, after all, is the Keith Richards image that he has created for himself and, consequently, the ones that fans love to see. These shining moments popped up again and again in the documentary, and the viewer was treated to Richard’s inexorably fun character — the same who notably inspired Johnny Depp’s characterization of Captain Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.
“Under the Influence” is an odd combination of things. Its first part is a look into the creation of his music. The second part feels horribly clunky and inorganic, as if it were solely created to feed Richards’ love for the blues. The rest, however, is a fun-to-watch portrayal of what you’d expect a rock legend to be. He’s off-the-charts zany, he’s contemplative, he’s always puffing a cigarette and he’s what should have dominated the entirety of the documentary.