Toronto: How Director Morgan Neville Bounced From Yo-Yo Ma to Keith Richards in One Festival

“I spent four years on the Yo-Yo Ma film. That was like writing a novel. And after I write a novel, let me just dash off a haiku,” Oscar-winning filmmaker says of Richards doc

Morgan Neville with Keith Richards and Yo-Yo Ma
Getty Images

Morgan Neville has directed documentaries about the Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, Brian Wilson, Stax Records, Iggy Pop and others, including his Oscar-winning look at backup singers, “20 Feet From Stardom.” But his many different musical worlds have seldom intersected the way they did at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where a Neville-directed doc about cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble premiered on Sunday, and another about Keith Richards followed on Thursday.

The films are as dramatically different as their subjects. “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble” is a painstakingly assembled four-year project to document the musicians from around the world who make up Ma’s boundary-busting group; “Keith Richards: Under the Influence” is a snapshot of the wheezy, wizened rock icon and the roots music he still lives for.

Neville talked to TheWrap after Yo-Yo and before Keith.

TheWrap: From Yo-Yo Ma to Keith Richards — it’s quite a festival for you.
Morgan Neville: Yeah. I’m hoping to get them together. Yo-Yo said he’d like to meet Keith, so I want to see my worlds collide.

Why do you think we’re seeing such an explosion in music documentaries?
There have always been lots of music docs, but I feel like they’re getting more attention now. And they’re finding a bigger audience, between “Amy” and the Nina Simone movie …

But I also see a lot more documentaries getting started from the suits. People are like, “We’ve got a catalog full of artists — let’s go make six documentaries.” Which to me is not the best starting place … but I think it’s a good thing, to have all these music films.

How did you connect with Keith Richards?
I got a call from Radical Media, who had been talking to his manager. They said, “He’s putting out an album, and they want to do an interview so they have some kind of content to use. Would you be willing to sit down and talk to Keith?”

Normally, I wouldn’t do something like that, but for Keith Richards, absolutely. They sent me some of the songs on his new album, and I heard a reggae song, an electric blues song, an acoustic blues song, a country song … And I said, “Well, this is the old music that influenced Keith. I just want to talk about all those influences as a way to think about all of this.”

So I spent a couple weeks gathering a pile of about 100 albums, and we brought a turntable and the albums to him. We did this interview for a few hours, and as a music geek it was an amazing experience. I’m sure if I told my 14-year-old self, “Someday you’re going to hang out with Keith Richards and talk about music,” I would not have believed it.

But we all had a great time, and his manager said, “Keep filming.” So we ended up going to the studio, and that was a blast. It was loose. I think the film is really an accurate representation of what it’s like to hang out with Keith and talk about life and music. [Laughs] Even thought his album is coming out, I didn’t realize until afterwards that we don’t even mention the name of the album in the film.

You didn’t get too deeply into the history, particularly into the darker parts of his life.
I could have said, “Let’s talk about heroin,” and I’m sure he would have told me about it. He doesn’t change when the cameras are off, and he doesn’t give a fuck what anybody else thinks. And in a way, that’s kind of made him a little bit bulletproof. A lot of celebrities are concerned with how they’re going to come off, or whether people are going to find out the dark secret in their past. Keith has plenty of dark things in his past, but they’re not secrets.

But I feel like I’ve heard that over and over. My mentor early on was Peter Gurnalick, the music writer. And I remember he once said to me, “The three least interesting things to talk to musicians about are sex, drugs and getting screwed over by your record label.”

So we knew in the beginning that we were not doing Keith’s life story … What I’ve been enjoying lately as a filmmaker is trying not to be encyclopedic … This whole project was just like a sketch: we made it fast, we made it seat of the pants. I spent four years on the Yo-Yo Ma film. That was like writing a novel. And after I write a novel, let me just dash off a haiku.

So how did the Silk Road movie come about?
One of [Ma’s] agents recommended me and I met him. At that time, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. He said, “I have this Silk Road project, and I think I want to do a concert film, but I don’t know.”

Within 10 minutes he was telling dirty jokes. Within an hour he was looking at pictures of my kids. And in two hours he was talking about philosophy, drinking wine the whole time. We had such a great time that at the end of the night I said, “I want to make a film with this guy.”

The film covers an enormous amount of ground, in which the music is really helping push for political and cultural change.
The great thing about the film for me is that everything Yo-Yo has been trying to do as an artist is what I feel like I’ve been trying to do as a filmmaker. I consider myself a cultural documentarian. I don’t do exposes, I’m not a polemicist. I started at the Nation magazine doing much harder journalism, but I realized that all my spare time was always about culture, about books and music and film and art. And I thought, “Why don’t I just make films about the things I actually spend all my time on?”

So I feel like trying to make sure that cultural documentaries get equal space and equal shrift and equal funding. That’s always been really important to me. So I feel like I’m very in sync with Yo-Yo — and in a way, I feel like that film is maybe the most personal film I’ve ever done.