Keith Richards is a crotchety old man. He hates new music. He gives the stink eye to some famous old music, too (he told Esquire that Sgt. Peppers was “rubbish”). He told Billboard recently that he seldom gets out anymore at age 71, and he ignores modern technology. But he’s not your typical 71-year-old man grandfather. He is still touring and still making music, including Crosseyed Heart, his new album. He is also the subject of a new documentary, Keith Richards: Under the Influence, directed by Morgan Neville. The Keith Richards in Under the Influence shows us that growing old does not mean you stop growing, even if you get a little crotchety.
If you’re hoping for a story about a 71-year-old hell raiser, Under the Influence will disappoint you. Instead, the documentary unfolds casually. We follow Keith around as he visits sources of the music that has influenced him for 50 years: places such as Chess Records in Chicago and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Along the way, he recalls the great artists who shaped his career, including Howlin’ Wolf and, famously, Muddy Waters. (An interviewer in the documentary notes that having worshipped old blues mainstays all his life, Keith has become an old mainstay.)
The “Keith on the Road” moments have a staged look about them, such as when he’s shooting pool with Buddy Guy, but the road has always been a stage for Keith Richards. By contrast, he seems relaxed and at ease during the scenes that take place in his home, where he plays blues on his turntable and spins oft-told yarns familiar to Rolling Stones fans. He speaks in half sentences that dissolve into a series of grunts and chuckles that recall Burgess Meredith’s portrayal of the Penguin in Batman. He comes across like a quirky uncle you see once a year at Thanksgiving.
He often reflects on the passage of time. As the camera follows Richards walking barefoot in the grass, his voice is heard saying, “You’re not grown up until the day they put you six feet under. You’re never grown up.” Later, he muses, “Life’s a funny thing. Nobody wants to get old, but they don’t want to die young, either.”
Keith Richards deals with getting old by creating. In the movie’s most powerful moments, he hangs out in the record studio as he and his bandmates make Crosseyed Heart. He sounds unpolished. His singing makes Bob Dylan sound like Luciano Pavarotti in his prime, belying the smoother and more polished sound of Crosseyed Heart, which is a soulful and inspired like a quirky uncle you see once a year at Thanksgiving. work I have already listened to several times.
The studio scenes are bold and brave because you hear a draft of a work in progress — a glimpse at Keith while he’s still figuring out the songs. But those scenes are the heart of the movie. He looks happy as he lives in the moment, jamming with ease.
“I love recording in any studio,” he says. “I feel totally at home.”
Richards speaks of the music he creates with the bewilderment of a boy who is just learning how to play the guitar. “Music is the center of everything,” he says. “It’s undefinable, and nobody’s ever going to have the answer to it, but it’s great fun exploring.” When he speaks of music, he sounds youthful.
I believe the truth of Under the Influence reveals itself during those scenes when Keith Richards is in the studio, creating music. This crotchety old man may sound like he has many miles on his voice, but he is not working. He is playing. And I think a sense of play is the secret to his creating and growing at age 71. How about you? Do you inject a sense of play into your life no matter what you do to earn a living?