Friday, December 31, 2010

Rockin' & Rollin' with Keith Richards (Exile & Chuck Berry)

My whim with movies and other odds and ends of popular culture can be taken along based on a number of things, like if I hear a song or I step in the wrong puddle or if I eat a burger that gives me just the kind of gas that has an image akin to a movie that I once thought of.  So in the past month as I on one side got very weirdly interested in seeking out Andy Warhol's films that are (somewhat) available at a (not really) reasonable export price just based on listening to Velvet Underground songs, on the other side I fell back in with some of my favorite rock and roll dudes, the Rolling Stones, specifically Keith Richards (or 'Keef' for short).

It's from reading his memoir, all very simply but accurately titled Life, that I tried to seek out movie-related artifacts that had to do with the man/myth/open-tuning-guitar-legend/pirate.  Unfortunately, unlike his brother-in-arms Mick Jagger, he's not much in the way of acting.  So it was really up to the documentary Gods to deliver some material on Richards.  One of which was a re-watch, one of my favorite things with the Stones- maybe the best and most invigorating in their later years- Martin Scorsese's Shine a Light concert-doc.  That made for a good night of (somewhat) watching while I multitasked with the very nerdy interest of cataloging all of my movie ticket-stubs (someday I'll post pictures... and then proceed to be beaten up on the playground for such pronounced nerdiness - but hey, it ain't a collection of nametags and hairnets ;)

But the other two movies were new ones, and so I shall give some over-view here.  Neither one entirely focuses on Richards, and yet they wouldn't exist without him.

Taylor Hackford's tribute to the other man/myth/legend/Goddamn God-Man Chuck Berry, who influenced an entire generation of rock and rollers if not single-handedly then with a much bigger hand than others around him, is very good.  It probably lacks a reach of greatness due to it being just a bit too... referential might be the word?  And I don't mean that it can't be praiseworthy, especially to, you know, someone who made rock and roll the Name of the Game for so many musicians in the second half of the twentieth century.

No, of course, his music is revolutionary, to some extent.  'Some' in that he was first and foremost a songwriter-singer, which set him apart after what was the norm for so long: singers were singers, writers were writers.  If not for Chuck Berry it's likely Lennon and McCartney wouldn't have had the gumption to set to task to scribble down their own love songs (or, at the least, we wouldn't have their cover of the Berry classic 'Roll Over Beethoven').  And he had a very specific set of songs in mind to present to people: songs about school, cars, and love, and the details in the song (as Bruce Springsteen describes it) is what made them so special.  "A 'coffee-colored Catilac', I would know it if I saw one."  Don't we all, if they're around.

But what is a little distracting is Berry's own sense of himself and how he presents himself at times- not all the times, in a lot of his interview bits he's charming and understanding of how it could be rough for black musicians at the time (usually reminded by his conpatriots also interviewed, Bo Diddley and the ever-colorful Little Richard, wooo!)  Maybe this is more on the end of Hackford.  The way he shoots the movie is not like a lot of other music documentaries.  Not necessarily with the concert footage, that's something else, what I mean are those scenes where he'll be following Berry into somewhere like the old building where he first really got his chops playing in front of people, or when he shows off his cars and their history in the 70's.  I can understand that first part, but the cars?  And the way it's shot, while professional, is almost too slick for a documentary.  It's more like a fictional-narrative with its dolly-tracking and precise cutting from one shot to the next (EXT to INT for you screenwriters out there).

This is not a very major criticsm levied at the movie, more of an observation at how the movie is, in a way, like a refurbished old car.  It's like a wonderful relic of a former era, and we have Keith Richards to thank for it as he's really the musical "director" of the piece (or, as he says, more of a 'getting-people-together' director; in his memoir it was he who took the time and effort to track down Johnnie Johnson the piano player, one of Berry's 50's regulars, to give the Berry Band the kick it so desperately desired after years of hack road bands).  He also plays live in the concert, and while mostly in the background blending so delicately into the sound of the rest of it all he does show off some good solo-work on a lot of the classics like "Riding Along in my Automobile."

Oh, and yeah, it's a concert movie in very large part (I'd say 70% concert, 30% doc), and when Hackford cuts back to that it's a lot of fun.  Berry's a natural entertainer here, at least in the extraordinary setting of his 60th birthday concert with lots of special guests ranging from Etta James to Julian Lennon.  No guest is really wasted however, and James especially brings an unexpected, awesome down-ol' blues feel to her number.  But it's also just fantastic to hear the same, or maybe better with Richards and Johnson, energy and swagger that Berry likely had back in the day with all of the hit numbers, and some I hadn't heard before (shamefully) like 'Sweet Little Sixteen'.  The band is a cracking good ensemble, tight but having fun, and led by a charismatic figure.

Maybe what would have made it great is if Berry had been just a little more open in some parts, not trying to sound like he was talking to the camera.  He's better when Hackford is asking him questions, or has him with his actual mother and father telling stories.  When he speaks to the camera, I'm worried he might break out and try and sell me the latest refurbished hit collection.  Nevertheless for real rock fans it's a must, and you know who you are, the likes of whom would want to dance like Travolta and Thurman in Pulp Fiction to 'Never Can Tell' (which, by the way, is sadly missing from the film).

Stones in Exile, which is decidedly much more about Richards but also about the group of the Stones at large, is perhaps just a little too short.  It runs at a very brisk 60 minutes, which might be fine if one is looking for just the basic scoop ala-TV-documentary time.  And maybe that is what it was meant for and is okay at.  But this is a grand, epic story that got just the right amount of coverage in the books that have been released on that fateful summer of 1971 where the Stones left to France after England kicked their asses with over-taxes.  You think it's tough here in the States, try getting an 83% tax rate!

Maybe it's cause it's a book versus a movie, or maybe there isn't enough that the Stones, all of whom including retired members like Bill Wyman and ex-lovers like Anita Pallenberg, agreed to let out due to being interviewed.  Hell, even Richards's oldest son Marlon, who got a good deal of mention in Richards' memoir, gives some scoop on what little he could remember of the period.  Or maybe it's more of a specific stylistic choice that is a little irksome in the doc: there is precious little actual interview footage shown of the Stones- we do see Jagger and Charlie Watts wandering around the old grounds of the basement recording studio at Nellcote- as it's mostly just voice-over and narration over still images and some limited rehearsal footage.

There are a few talking heads- Martin Scorsese, Jack White, Benicio Del-Toro (?!)- but they're book-ended at the start and finish.  I guess the one complaint is that it's not enough of a good thing, like a quarter of a filet mignon instead of the whole fucking slab of meat.  And yet what is thrown to us is just fine, and if you have absolutely no knowledge of how the album was made (that is a novice Stones fan or maybe a curious visitor to their catalog) it is a good primer.  We get to see some of the process, the long laboring to make just one song that could take days, and the peculiar and sometimes frustrating set-up at the Nellcote mansion of setting up musicians in a kitchen or a closet or bathroom just to get a particular sound.  And, of course, other hassles like the distance-gap for Charlie Watts (a 6-7 hour drive round trip from his place to Richards' mansion!) and Mick Jagger's hyped marriage.

Oh, and Richards' heroin addiction, which is given some mention but not to the extent that one could see in some of the books, certainly by Richards' own admission (after the summer he actually had to go to a special rehab in Switzerland just to get one of his many future cold turkeys).  But it is a fun process to watch in the documentary, filled naturally and thankfully with every song from the album (save maybe for "Let it Loose" if I'm not mistaken).  It's a tale of exiles making a record that is filled with great sounds and experimentation, and it gets better on every listen as its little idiosyncrasies and mix of hard-rock and blues and western and even gospel ("Just Wanna See His Face") make it so eclectic as to be one-of-a-kind.  As for the documentary... not so much.

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