Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me


Portrait of an artist at work.

(2019) Music Documentary (Eagle RockRonnie Wood, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart, Peter Grant, Malcolm McLaren, Charlie Watts, Imelda May, Damien Hirst, Mike Figgis, Sally Wood. Directed by Mike Figgis

 

Ron Wood, co-guitarist of the Rolling Stones alongside Keith Richards, stands out in rock and roll history as one of the finest and most influential blues rock guitarists to ever come out of Great Britain. He has been in bands with Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, performing in such groups as the Birds (not the American psychedelic band), the Small Faces, the Jeff Beck Group and of course, the Stones – arguably the world’s greatest band.

Veteran British filmmaker Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) presents Wood in all his working-class glory, the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with at the pub into the wee hours. His dad had the same kind of bonhomie, often falling asleep in random gardens on his way home from the pubs, not quite sober enough to make it all the way to his own door.

Figgis assembles a pretty impressive array of interview subjects, including three of his fellow Stones (although, oddly, there is very little footage of Wood performing with his current band, a rendition of “When the Whip Comes Down”) and Stewart, accomplished blues singer Imelda May (who performed with Wood early on in her career), alongside artist Damien Hirst (Wood is an accomplished painter as well) and, curiously, notorious Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant who had little if anything to do with Wood’s career, although he asks after Wood during an archival interview with Figgis and former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (both Grant and McLaren have since passed on). Wood’s third wife, Sally, briefly appears to admit that she prefers her husband sober, although he is a pretty good drunk – Wood had the reputation of keeping things together even when sloshed. Wood’s first two wives and six children aren’t mentioned, nor is his session work.

Which is where the film falls down. We are given broad brush strokes, but few details, so overall the work looks a little bit like a house painter interpreting Manet. One wonders if there were logistical concerns here that prevented further participation from ex-wives, kids, or perhaps a rock historian or two to assess Wood’s place in rock and roll history, which is considerable. The movie is a scant 82 minutes and it felt like Figgis could have added another 20 minutes comfortably. This is one of those rare films that doesn’t overstay its welcome but quite the opposite; it leaves before you’re ready for it to go.

There is some terrific archival footage which is really the main reason some of his fans will want to check this out; the interview between Figgis and Wood is clearly a couple of old mates getting together and reminiscing, although Wood doesn’t spend much time in self-reflection. His philosophy of life is summarized in a Yogi Berra quote – “if you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Wood has led an interesting life and a charmed life – after having lung surgery following a half century of heavy smoking, his doctors told him he essentially had lungs that were as good as if he had never smoked at all. Wood’s delighted refrain was “It’s like a get out of jail free card – somebody up there must like me.” Plenty of people down here like him too, and for good reason; you just wouldn’t know it in this curiously uninformative documentary.

REASONS TO SEE: A chronicle of an interesting life.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a little disjointed and curiously incomplete.
FAMILY VALUES: This is a fair amount of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wood was invited to join the Rolling Stones after Brian Jones passed away, but his manager turned down the opportunity without informing Wood (until much later) because he already had a gig with the Small Faces, so Mick Taylor took the job. When Taylor decided to leave, the invitation was once again offered and this time Wood accepted.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Who: The Kids are Alright
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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The Social Dilemma

The Public Image is Rotten


John Lydon considers his kitchen.

(2017) Music Documentary (Abramorama) John Lydon, Jah Wobble, Martin Atkins, Lu Edmonds, John Rambo Stevens, Alan Dias, Bill Laswell, Don Letts, Pete Jones, Bruce Smith, Thurston Moore, Moby, Adam Horovitz, Big Youth, Flea, Nick Launay, Scott Firth, Keith Levene, Jebin Bruni, Ginger Baker, Andrew Perry, Michael Alago, Ian Mackaye, John Waters, Vivien Goldman. Directed by Tabbert Filler

 

At first glance, doing a documentary on his post-punk project Public Image, Ltd. (or more popularly known as PiL) doesn’t seem to be something John Lydon would be terribly comfortable. Music documentaries by their nature tend to look back; Lydon has always been more interested in what lies ahead rather than what lies behind. However, Lydon has turned 60 and when people get to be more reflective at that age.

For those who don’t know, Lydon was one of the founding members of the Sex Pistols, the band credited with igniting the punk revolution which led to a fertile period in which musicians explored new forms of pop and rock and created music that broke all the rules, then continued on breaking those rules again. The Sex Pistols imploded before much of that happened amid much acrimony; Lydon was famously sued by band manager and control freak Malcolm McLaren who prevented Lydon from using his stage name of Johnny Rotten; the memory still leaves a bitter taste in his mouth although when McLaren passed away in 2010 Lydon paid tribute to the impresario.

Nearly broke and without a means of making a living, Lydon assembled a new band that eventually was named after a book by Muriel Spark with ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, Lydon’s former schoolmate Jah Wobble and Canadian drummer Jim Walker. The group released several albums and eventually fell victim to egos and contentious personalities. But that wouldn’t be the end of PiL.

Public Image Ltd. Has been in existence for 40 years now and has consistently pushed the boundaries of expectation, choosing to explore and invent rather than repeat. While they’ve only released ten studio albums in that period, albums like Metal Box and Happy? Have influenced generations of musicians, including Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Moby and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who was once offered a position in the band but turned it down to remain with his old band), all of whom are interviewed here.

Lydon is a fascinating subject. He is known for his candor and occasionally for genuine introspection. He has a puckish sense of humor (he spends much of the film interview sequences in his pajamas, sitting at a breakfast bar in his kitchen, reheating his coffee in the stove. He is self-deprecating from time to time – he doesn’t take fame very seriously – but when it comes to the music his demeanor is all business. He also keeps his private life as private as possible. His wife Nora doesn’t appear on camera and Lydon doesn’t really discuss how he and his wife have raised her granddaughters (Nora’s daughter is the late Slits lead singer Ari Up) although he does remark that having the kids around has changed him.

Most of the film revolves around the band and Lydon is generally complimentary to former bandmates, although there are exceptions. Of Wobble he said “He contributed a lot but ultimately he took more than he gave,” referring to Wobble’s middle finger exit to the band. Filler at least gives equal time to some of the musicians whom Lydon has issues with. Lydon is a fine storyteller and many of his bandmates – particularly Atkins – are also fine storytellers as well.

Fans of the band – which I was not one of – will appreciate the concert footage of the group, including their notorious Ritz show in New York in which the band chose to play behind a theater screen leading to a near-riot which Lydon gleefully claims is maybe their best live show ever. I have to admit however hearing Lydon talk about the uncompromising nature of the band and their need to continually reinvent themselves made a fan out of me and that’s not an easy thing to accomplish.

If I have any beef with the movie is that we don’t get as much on what motivates some of the stylistic changes that the band went through. I think part of it is that Lydon insists on bringing in musicians who are inventive but also gifted players like Levene, the late John McGeoch, Alan Dias and even Jah Wobble. Still, this may be one of the best music documentaries ever made. Even if you’re not a particular fan of PiL you should still see this; you may change your mind as I did.

The film is currently playing in New York City but will be playing all over the country in the coming months. Orlando residents can see the movie in November as part of the Enzian’s Music Monday series. Tickets for that show are on sale now.

REASONS TO GO: The band’s story is truly compelling. Lydon is an engaging raconteur. The concert footage is wonderful. Interviewing Lydon in his pajamas at his breakfast bar in his kitchen is a stroke of genius.
REASONS TO STAY: We get little sense of the things that influence Lydon in his creative process.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Filler’s first feature film as a director. He has worked as a cinematographer on other films including Sammy Gate and The Activist.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 10/10
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MDMA