Towards the beginning of the film, Ronnie Wood explains that he’s 70 (he’s 73 now) but has never got past feeling he’s 29. Since his early teens he’s been playing in groups, some of which you may have heard of – the Jeff Beck Group, the Faces, the Rolling Stones. To prove his pulling power, various big name Talking Heads are brought on – Mick n Keef, of course, Malcolm McClaren, Imelda May.
Although he’s a patient and engaged interviewee, Wood doesn’t seem too keen on talking about himself. Then again, quite a few of the Talking Heads barely mention him as they dole out Celebrity Gossip. Others are more compelling – who’d have known that Damien Hirst is engaging and articulate and not a self-obsessed oaf?
The structure of the film is in 3 parts. At first, Wood talks about his early life living in a council house in North London, son of an alcoholic father who regularly woke up in a neighbour’s garden. The alcoholism seems to have passed down to Wood and his two brothers. In passing, he mentions that his first love died in a car crash when she’s 15, but he’s not one for worrying overly about the past. Yes he loved her, but its happened now.
We then go through the various bands that he was in after joining The Birds when he was 14. Again, anecdotes fly by without us really noticing. He was originally supposed to be the guitarist in Led Zeppelin, he brought Rod Stewart into the Small Faces because Rod was too shy to ask himself, the Stones originally invited him to replace Brian Jones, but his bandmates didn’t mention it to him.
Some of this is handled with great panache, not least when Jagger and Richards talk articulately. You always knew that Keith would give good interview, but Jagger also comes across as intelligent and eloquent. They talk about how Keith’s three different guitar partners in the Stones affected the sound of the band. After Ronnie joined, they imply, things were much more fun.
For me the high point of the film is the various interviews which are carried out while we hear (and occasionally see) Ronnie playing slide guitar. Neither the speech nor the music is foregrounded, they just coexist, expressing the different sides of the man.
Some of the rest of the film is less elegant. Director Mike Figgis draws cards from a pack, each one containing a word on which Wood is invited to speak. This is tried three times before being unceremoniously discarded. Its not that Wood isn’t interesting, but he seems to be better at responding to straight questions than corny devices.
In the final part of the film, Ronnie and friends talk about him overcoming various drink and drug addictions. We’ve already heard that he’s given up smoking and how the removal of part of a lung fortunately took out all the cancer in his body. Now they explain the hard stuff. And when Keith Richards speaks in awe about the resilience of your body, you know you could have a problem.
Again, everything is explained unfussily, and without any sensation. He doesn’t regret anything he did, but nor would he recommend how he behaved. His wife Sally, however, is clearly relieved. He’s not a scary drunk, she explains, but when he’s not been taking anything, you come closer to experiencing the real him. And the real Ronnie Wood seems to be universally loved and admired.
The story we see is that of a professional backup man. His greatest triumphs were when playing behind much more flamboyant singers. As if to emphasize this, we hear some of his new stuff. It is ok, no more, no less, but pales in comparison with early footage of Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger. Tellingly, the concert footage stops in the early 1980s, the time Stones records officially stopped being Any Good.
Ronnie calls himself self-confident, and says that the drugs emphasized that. But the unpretentious person we see before us does not show any need to thrust himself into the limelight. He plays some guitar, he has his painting, and he’s quite happy with that. He explains the times of debauchery matter of factedly, but that was then. He seems much happier now.