If you were looking for a pundit to present a documentary on how Britain changed from 1945 to the early 1960s, Keith Richards might not be the obvious choice. But Julien Temple’s new documentary mixes Richards’ pre-Rolling Stones memories of growing up in Kent with his account of how American music shook up post-war Britain.
It’s 30 years since the director Julien Temple made Absolute Beginners, a rare attempt at a big film musical in Britain. It flopped.
But in this millennium he’s made a series of memorable music documentaries. They’ve featured intimate interviews and archive material used in striking new ways.
Subjects have included Joe Strummer, The Kinks and Wilko Johnson.
“Of course I love the music,” Temple says. “But I’m just as fascinated by social context.”
Temple’s latest documentary Keith Richards – The Origin of the Species has a strong focus on social history.
It’s not a band biography: the story stops just as the Rolling Stones are becoming well known.
Temple says he enjoyed Richards’ memoirs when they came out in 2011.
“But I was really struck by the early chapters and how viscerally connected he still is to his childhood in Dartford,” he says. “There were vast elements that we didn’t know about him before.
“Keith’s 72 now but he has a real affection for when he was growing up. I was sure it would translate to the screen too, so at the beginning of April we sat down and did the interview which is the centre of the film.
“Maybe we’re reaching a legacy moment for the ’60s generation. I think Keith is pleased his grandchildren’s generation will get an extra insight into the England which made him.”
Temple says it’s no coincidence that his documentaries have often focussed on London and the Thames Estuary.
“People expect a music scene in the capital city,” he says. “But places like Dartford had their own energy too.
“People think it’s going to be a dull place but the landscape when you head out into the Thames marshes is extraordinary – it’s almost like being in the Serengeti.”
Apart from the archive – an intricate montage of newsreel, TV commercials and old public information films – what makes the documentary work is Richards’ humour and honesty as an interviewee.
He starts by recalling how Dartford was part of “bomb alley” for the Luftwaffe as they headed to or from London in the Blitz.
But he also talks with insight of a father who “had a good heart – but he had a problem expressing it”, adding: “He had a lot of physical energy: I got a lot of that from him.”
‘Period of change’
Richards is good on the differences between his own generation and that of his parents.
“Dad worked for General Electric, making lamp tubes,” he says. “His mind-set was from the 1930s and the Depression: if you had a job you kept hold of it. I got very little ‘Well done son’.
“But then I realised he was working so damn hard he didn’t have time for it.”
With obvious affection, he recalls his mother as “very subversive”.
“I got some of my humour from her,” he says. “She loved to sing around the house and she really knew the dial on the radio – the BBC Light Programme but also the Home Service and the Third Programme.
“She pretty much filled my ears all the time with music, music, music.”
Temple says many people of Richards’ generation would also have thoughts about how different parents were who grew up before World War Two.
“But it’s striking in the film how the decades of celebrity and high living haven’t blinded Keith to how limited social and cultural horizons were,” he says. “He was lucky to be young in a period of change in Britain and the Stones grabbed their chance with both hands.”
As the ’50s near their end, the influence of American rock and roll and the blues on the teenaged Richards becomes unmistakable.
Temple says songs like Fats Domino’s Rockin’ Bicycle, featured in the documentary, must have seemed extraordinary at the time.
‘Music saved me’
Given that the film has been made in just three months (and was still being edited in the week of transmission), Temple says decisions on what music to include had to be made quickly.
“But the whole process has been revolutionised by everything being online,” he says. “Just as you can now do initial research on film clips on YouTube, I often found myself hunting for suitable music on Spotify.
“The old way to do a documentary was to write and rewrite your script and then hunt out video and audio material to support what you’ve said. But now you can research material on the internet and decide something is irresistible and has to go in. There’s an element of beachcombing – though it still helps to have fantastic archive researchers.”
People coming to the documentary expecting revelations about the early days of the Stones may be disappointed.
But Richards is superb at evoking a 1950s boyhood, with its summer holidays with mum and dad in Dorset and early trips to London.
Perhaps surprisingly, he even explains how he enjoyed being in the school choir and how joining the scouts helped give him the personal skills to co-found the Rolling Stones.
But he also recounts how he started to stand up to authority figures.
“I could have gone criminal but luckily music saved me.”
Temple hopes his film shows how much Britain changed while Richards was growing up.
“When he was 10 there was still rationing, kids barely had sweets or Christmas presents and there was still National Service and commercial TV didn’t yet exist,” he says. “By the time he was 20 that had all changed.
“It was a revolution and Keith’s great at explaining that for an audience. But he’s also a little cynical about the revolution which is part of why you want to listen to what he says.
“The film isn’t really about Keith’s music or his lyrics. But if you listen to some of his songs there’s an edge of social commentary.
“He’s always been very aware of the time he’s lived through. Keith had wild man phases – but I like the fact that in the film he comes over as grounded. I think he’s at peace with himself: he knows who he is.”
Keith Richards – The Origin of the Species is on BBC Two on 23 July.
Read more: www.bbc.co.uk