Monday, September 21, 2015
Keith Richards: Under The Influence
Directed by Morgan Neville
Janis: Little Girl Blue
Directed by Amy Berg
Reviews by Allan Tong
Documentaries of two sixties rock icons screened at TIFF last week. Of the two, Morgan Neville's Keith Richards: Under the Influence attracted more attention because its subject flew into Toronto and personally presented this film the night before its worldwide release on Netflix.
Neville, who directed the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom (good, but overrated), described Under the Influence at a press conference as a “scrapbook” that he never intended to be an adaptation of Ricahrds' superb memoir, Life. On those terms, Neville succeeeds and it explains the holes in the documentary. Notably, the film completely ignores the influences of early Stones' guitarist Brian Jones and first wife Anita Pallenberg in Richards' early life and career. Also, while it's true it's been done to death, there's no mention of Richards' drug addictions and drug bust.
Instead, the focus is on Richards' music, particularly the blues, which nurtures his soul. The film is really an advert for Richards' latest album, Crosseyed Heart, which dropped on the same day as the movie's Netflix premiere. Neville interviews his producer and esteemed drummer, Steve Jordan, and colleagues, notably Tom Waits. We see Richards play several cuts from the album, both in solo acoustic and with his full rock band. His music remains valid and powerful.
Neville travels with Richards to Chess Studios in Chicago, which was the Stones' journey to Mecca in June 1964 when they met their idol Muddy Waters. Keith drops in on Buddy Guy today and they share a shot of white lightning as two bluesman shootin' the shit. The film also heads to Memphis where Keith stands upon the Ryman Theater, the home of the Grand Ole Opry and waxes about the influence of country in his music.
A strength of the film are the unseen colour 8mm home movies of the Stones in the early tours, which bring to life Richards' reminisces about struggling to find an audience among white kids for their black American music. Another highlight is Keith playing the original demo of Street Fighting Man on an old portable cassette recorder, intercut with the making of Sympathy For The Devil in London's Olympic Studios in the summer of 1968 (shot by Jean-Luc Goddard). He walks us through the evolution of these songs and it's amazing to behold.
Don't expect any of the Stones or his British peers here. Keith is enough. He's charming, witty and insightful. “Nobody wants to get old, but nobody wants to die young,” he laments in his gravelly voice. Critics will inevitably put him down as a fossilized junkie, but Richards in this film is a wise, old man who's survived in a young man's game. True, Under The Influence plays it safe, but it remains a rewarding portrait of a consummate blues-rock musician and survivor.
In contrast, Amy Berg's Janis: Little Girl Blue is a requiem to a female pioneer in rock, no less brilliant or important than Richards. It is the better of the two films, because Berg was given freer reign to tell her subject's life yet had access to Janis Joplin's personal diary and photos. (Joplin's siblings, Laura and Michael, gave their blessing and appear in the film.)
Berg, who directed the searing Deliver Us From Evil (about child sex abuse) drills down and captures the essence of an outsider who channelled her pain and gave it back to the world in blues music.
Joplin hailed from Port Arthur, Texas, a hick town that had an active KKK chapter. When Joplin openly supported integration, classmates persecuted her. She was an outsider from the start. Her rebellious nature rubbed many the wrong way in college where she was cruelly named The Ugliest Man on Campus. By now in the film, the viewer is on Joplin's side. We want her to escape this ignorance and succeed.
She did by flocking to San Francisco right in time for Flower Power and became a free-spirited hippie icon. Joplin finally found her place in the world. She was fronting an all-male band, soaring to overnight success at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, and scoring a number-one album, Cheap Thrills .
Unfortunately, she took refuge in heroin and hard liquor and couldn't lead her 1969 band, The Kozmic Blues Band, which dissolved after one album. Joplin frequently writes about feeling lonely in her diary, but the film points out that she also alienated lovers, both male and female, who would have supported her, because she chose solace in drugs instead. No doubt that Joplin wrestled with demons and that conflict nurtured her art, but sadly the demons beat her.
Berg succeeds in letting Joplin tell her story by casting singer Cat Power (Chan Marshall) to read her diary (a perfect choice) and constantly weaving home movie footage, personal photos and Laura Joplin's comments throughout the film. Whereas with Under the Influence you suspect you're seeing only selected sides of Keith Richards, in Little Girl Blue you feel like you're seeing the entire portrait. This is Janis Joplin, the happy-go-lucky bohemian to the outside world, but a hurt little girl on the inside who never overcame her pain.
Many films have been made about Janis Joplin since she died in 1970, but Amy Berg's portrait is the definitive one.