Toronto got the first and only big-screen look at Morgan Neville’s documentary “Keith Richards: Under the Influence” at its red-carpet world premiere Thursday, the night before the worldwide release of the film on Netflix, which also coincides with the official release of “Crosseyed Heart” (Republic), the legendary Rolling Stones guitarist’s first solo album in decades.
“I growl at everything,” joked Richards, dressed in gold-hued reptile-print jacket and wearing his trademark headband and sunglasses, at a smokefree media conference held in advance of the screening. “(The documentary) wasn’t planned, I didn’t see the point at that particular time, I was busy making a record.”
The project, originally intended as a short film related to “Crosseyed Heart,” began with Neville taking a pile of blues, jazz and soul albums to Richards’ house and filming the musician talking about important music from his life for a couple of hours.
“Once I got talking to Morgan and he had shot a few things, by then things had taken over, which was the same way with this record,” Richards continued. “Suddenly you realize this thing is bigger than both of you, and you gotta finish it.
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“Organic is the word,” he added with a classic Keef grin.
A treasure for Richards fans, “Influence” uses scenes about tracks on the new album as jumping-off points to reveal key moments from the musician’s past — from early record purchases and the Stones’ encounters with blues legends to the making of the 1987 Chuck Berry doc “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll” and projects with Jamaican musicians and Tom Waits — while weaving in an array of never-before-seen photos and footage from the archives of family, colleagues and friends.
“The structure of the whole film is an amble, I think of it like a scrapbook,” Neville said. “So you’re talking about music and life, and you feel like you’ve gone somewhere. But of course you need a few witnesses.”
“The man knows a lot about music,” said Richards, a fan of Neville’s Oscar-winning doc “20 Feet From Stardom” (which he erroneously called “12 Steps From Stardom”). Neville also interviewed the guitarist for a 2003 “American Masters” doc on blues legend Muddy Waters.
It all comes down to meeting the right people to play with, Richards says. “I got lucky at the first go, meeting Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts. I realized the chemistry between people playing together makes the music far more important than anything one can do by oneself — so it’s about community and friendship.”
Neville said the experience working with Netflix — “my first time down this road” — has been great. “There’s been a seismic shift in the doc world. People never knew where to find these films, and Netflix has opened up new audience to these films.”
As for “Influence,” what started as a companion to one album may feel to many viewers like a companion to Richards’ bestselling memoir “Life” (2010), co-written with journalist James Fox.
“I have stories, and I tell them, and so I was surprised by the book, by the way James organized it,” Richards said.
Added Neville, “The film and book to me work together, in that they both take the idea of the Keith Richards’ persona and dimensionalize it — there’s a real person who wrote all these songs and played all these songs.”