Director Mike Figgis Talks Trading Licks with Ronnie Wood

Somebody Up There Likes Me director Mike Figgis’s new documentary follows Ronnie Wood from music studios to art studios.

Ronnie Wood Mike Figgis
Photo: Eagle Rock Entertainment

Before becoming a filmmaker, Leaving Las Vegas director Mike Figgis was a musician and performer in the experimental group called The People Show. Before that, he played trumpet and guitar in the experimental jazz ensemble The People Band, whose first record was produced by Rolling Stone drummer Charlie Watts. He is also the founding patron of an online community of independent filmmakers called Shooting People. You can say Figgis is a People person, which makes him the perfect director to capture Ronnie Wood in the documentary Somebody Up There Likes Me.

One of rock and roll’s most iconic guitarists, Wood is good with people. He plays well with others. He is the Stone who’s never alone. Before he began weaving guitar licks with Keith Richards in the Rolling Stones, Wood helped shape the British rock sound in bands like The Birds and the Creation. He was the bass player to the guitar maestro in The Jeff Beck Group, which featured the distinctive voice of Rod Stewart at the front. They put out two albums, 1968’s Truth and 1969’s Beck-Ola, before splintering just as they were to appear at Woodstock. Wood and Stewart inherited the Small Faces from Steve Marriott and dropped the album First Step in 1970. They realized they were too tall for the diminutive moniker and renamed the band The Faces. They released the albums Long Player and A Nod Is as Good as a Wink…to a Blind Horse in 1971, and Ooh La La (1973), before splitting up in 1975.

Wood guested on albums by David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, the Band, Donovan, B.B. King, and on Stewart’s solo albums. He spent so much time flavoring other performers’ works, he didn’t put out a solo album of his own until 1974 which he aptly titled I’ve Got My Own Album to Do. Wood also went solo for 1981’s 1234 and collaborated with Bo Diddley on Live at the Ritz in 1988, Wood’s seventh solo album, I Feel Like Playing (2010), featured guest spots from ex-Faces bandmate Ian McLagan, as well as The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Guns N’ Roses’ Slash, Billy Gibbons, Bobby Womack, and Jim Keltner.

Somebody Up There Likes Me isn’t structured like most music documentaries. It is primarily a conversation, and it veers from much of Wood’s vast output. The hard-partying musician beat lung cancer and candidly blames his excessive indulgences. He saw bandmates, contemporaries and friends, like Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and John Bonham push past the lethal limits of chemical reactions. Wood himself remembers telling Keith Moon to take pills, not bottles of them. Richards remarks in the documentary how the two Rolling Stones guitarists share strong constitutions. Wood began recording with the Rolling Stones when they were halfway through their 1976 album, Black and Blue, and has been steady even up to their recent pandemic live stream.

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The documentary also captures Wood’s visual artistry. He was an artist before he was a musician. His drawings were featured on BBC TV’s Sketch Club when he was a child, and he studied at the Ealing Art College. Wood did the cover artwork to Eric Clapton’s 1988 box set Crossroads. The two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee continues to capture visions like Mick Jagger’s dancing in a Picasso style, as well as the shots in Somebody Up There Likes Me of him capturing the grace of a ballerina on canvas.

Born in northern England, director Mike Figgis was raised on jazz and Jean-Luc Godard movies. The inventor of the “fig rig” knows when to experiment, such as he did in Timecode (2000) and Hotel (2001), how to get drama out of romance, as he did with One Night Stand, starring Wesley Snipes and Nastassja Kinski, and The Loss of Sexual Innocence. He is adept at crime dramas, directing the “Cold Cuts” episode of The Sopranos in 2004 and Internal Affairs, which starred Richard Gere. He also mines deep emotional schisms in films like Mr. North and Leaving Las Vegas (1995) for which he was nominated for Best Directing and Best Screenplay Oscars. Figgis spoke with Den of Geek about cinematic jams and studio sessions with Ronnie Wood.

Den of Geek: Over the course of the film, you produced a song using nothing but your backings and an orchestra of Ronnie Woods. How was he to produce?

Mike Figgis: He was a delight, actually. We did most of the interviews and everything where he was painting, he was in his own space for that. Then the dialog, he’s very very witty and so on. But at the end of the day, the man’s a musician. Quite later on in the process I said, “Let’s go into a studio and do something.” I think the minute we got into a studio it was different. For both of us because I’m a musician too. It’s just a different kind of reality and the language becomes much simpler between musicians and understanding the equipment, the whole vibe.

Originally Mark Ronson was going to do a soundtrack for us which would have been fantastic and then he just got very, very busy because we got late. I presented him with a kind of template of how maybe could make a nice soundtrack, which is basically what we did anyway. So we did it without Mark and Ronnie was very comfortable with that.

He very much left it to me. He added a lot, obviously. He said, “I’d like to do this as well,” and so on. So, we had a pretty full couple of days in studio time. But he was great to produce.

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There are a lot of musicians working on this besides you and Ronnie. Rosey Chan did the score for a painting scene.

Rosey’s my wife by the way. She’s a phenomenal concert pianist and composer and musician in her own right. She’s releasing an album now. She’s an amazing pianist, I just needed something to take us into a different zone, so I asked her to compose some piano pieces for that. Then I did some score myself. Just when he’s talking about drugs. I put a little bit of a weird score on that one.

So is this film more of a cinematic jam that you just edited in the mixing room?

Yeah, I think so. I think that’s a good way of putting it, actually.

Ronnie also worked with Bob Dylan, Prince, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin. Did you allow the interviews to determine what parts of his career you were going to include?

I actually wanted to avoid anybody else. I said, “Let’s just make it about him painting and us talking.” I wanted to make it as simple as possible. That didn’t happen because as soon as you sort of uncover one little stone, you kind of say “Oh, well obviously we should interview the Rolling Stones.” Then he started thinking, “Well, Rod’s around, we can use Rod.” When I discovered about Damien Hirst, “Actually that would be an interesting, unexpected one. That would be good, yeah.” So yeah.

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It was kind of organic, really. It was all sort of scheduled based in a sense that, “When are you available?” And, “When am I available? When are these people available?” So, getting the Stones was actually the trickiest thing. You had to go to Berlin and get them between gigs when they were watching the World Cup. In between World Cups actually. Very specific.

I know you’re in the People Band which had an album produced by Charlie Watts. So, were you in the same periphery of the Stones as Ronnie Wood back then?

No, the connection with Charlie was very interesting because the People Band was a free music ensemble. I mean really experimental. Really way out. The drummer was this phenomenal percussionist, still is, called Terry Day. Terry Day went to art college with Charlie’s wife and he knew Charlie because they were both drummers, so they got on really, really well. Charlie Watts has always been a huge jazz fan. Through Terry, it was one of those moments where Charlie says, “You know, we can record you. We got a mobile studio. We can either send the mobile to you wherever you’re playing.” I’m talking about in those days, in ’68 or whenever it was, the idea of a mobile multi-track was pretty amazing. “Or you can come to Olympic Studios,” which was where they recorded Beggars Banquet and everything. It was an amazing studio. And, “We’ll just give you the studio and the engineer, and you guys do what you want.” That’s how that came about and it was really lovely.

Over the years, once in a while I would see Charlie and just catch up, talk about drumming, really. And jazz. So it was really nice interviewing for this one again.

When you were asking Rod Stewart about Peter Grant, he sort of cut back and he became the young man that was bullied.

He did, didn’t he? When he said, “I’m protecting my hands and my face.”

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The gangster aspect of that mid ’60’s period, especially with Peter Grant, how did that affect the musicians and the working? Do you think it actually in some ways was good for it?

Well, you know that comes about from a very strange coincidence which was sort of touched on in the film. But, quite a few years back, Malcolm McLaren was wanting to produce a film. A feature film about Led Zeppelin and as a result of that, he and I went and interviewed Peter Grant which is where that footage comes from. I did a huge amount of research into Led Zeppelin and Peter Grant at the time, and spoke to and interviewed a lot of the people who were involved with their success. I didn’t interview Johnny Bindon, but he was a key figure. Johnny Bindon was a kind of very violent criminal. In London. Very good looking. He became an actor for a while. Had amazing sexual legends built around him involving royalty and all kinds of things, and was part of a kind of fashionable gangster scene. The craze and all the rest of it. The London gangster scene.

Sort of became fashionable because people went to all their clubs, and hung out with them, and David Bailey photographed them and all that. So there was a kind of a zeitgeist about gangsterism. There’s an incredibly good book written about it called Jumping Jack Flash which came out two years ago. Bindon became one of the agents for Led Zeppelin and famously beat up somebody so badly on one of their tours that was hospitalized. He was a very mean individual.

The whole association with Led Zeppelin was very much gangsterish because of Peter Grant and his associates who had those stories and so on. So that was a kind of one aspect, and also a lot of the management were fairly crooked in London at that time. There’s a bit of a gay mafia and all the rest of it, so part of the folklore of that period of British rock and roll is very gangsterish, and very much part of the story.

Whenever I think about gangsters and British rock I think of the movie Performance. When you’re filming conversations in the moment, are you saying in your head “this is filmic?”

Not consciously, no. I accept it as being part of the fabric, actually. I try to make everything filmic anyway, so I’m always trying to get as far away from any kind of documentary feel. I like things to have a live element to it.

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I loved Peter Grant’s Gene Vincent story. In the Beatles Anthology, George Harrison tells a similar one. What did Gene Vincent mean to young British rock and roller’s that everyone’s got a story about them?

Oh, because he was there, he was around. A little bit like the stories about everyone remembers Big Bill Broonzy and everyone remembers Sister Rosetta Thorpe. Main reason for that is they were a part of a very small group of musicians who were allowed to visit the UK during the Musician’s Union ban on touring. We were basically deprived of a lot of American musicians after the war, and the only reason Broonzy got in and Sister Rosetta Thorpe, was folk musicians were allowed in as opposed to, say, Louis Armstrong.

They all came in as folk singers even though they weren’t. I mean Broonzy was a fully-fledged Chicago blues musician and so was Sister Rosetta Thorpe. But everybody knows that. Anybody that was anybody around at that time would know those names. And Gene Vincent has become a kind of UK legend.

Do you see Ronnie as a very varied painter?

I wanted to capture a certain aspect of his art which was the line drawing. When we first started talking, I looked at all his art books. He does huge canvases with a lot of color, featuring the Rolling Stones, et cetera, et cetera. I was less interested in those. Those sell for a lot of money apparently and people really like them.

But when I saw his line drawing, his very quick drawings. Line drawing is very, very important. Sketching is very important in the same way that when you hear a very basic demo from a musician, there’s a certain truth about that. Then you can produce it and over produce it, and you can make it super sophisticated. I was interested in the bit that leads up to the way that he started producing. I wanted to set up situations where I would just see his line drawing. His ability to control lines, that was amazing.

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Then physically watching him do that is fascinating. I love filming people playing their musical instruments. There’s a certain truth about that, they get into their thing. And watching him draw I thought was fascinating. His concentration, absolute. Even in the interview with Damian Hirst. He’s so focused on what he’s doing that he doesn’t really pay much attention to Damian Hirst. Sort of answers the question. He doesn’t pick up on any of the jokes. Because he’s really focused on what he’s doing.

Watching his live stuff, Wood is a different person. While he’s playing guitar, you see him and Keith joking around.

I think that has something to do with the eye. Because I think it’s about blues guitar. You can see the finger memory is really, really strong so I mean in that early footage he’s smoking at the same time, right? He’s smoking, joking around, getting to the microphone, late usually, for the backup vocals. And moving around and having a great time. He doesn’t have to look at the guitar to do that. However, if you are drawing something, either you make that contact with your eye, so creating the triangle between the subject, the canvas, and your eye.  And you’re quite right. Radically different body language, and that’s interesting. There are two physical sides of him demonstrated on film, which you don’t really have to explain. There it is.

Is Somebody Up There Like Me a flip side to Leaving Las Vegas?

Maybe. You know, people have had a life, have had experience and come through darkness and coming to light and so on. For me, it just becomes 10 times more interesting than people who’ve just had a nice life and behaved well. Look a little puzzled that they’re not sort of 70 or something because it’s all been quite peaceful, you know? So there’s a kind of turbulence there which I think he says quite well when he says, “I see a fork in a road I take it.”

Like he says, “I would do it with my eyes more open now if I did it again.” I kind of admired that. It’s not like me. I’m much more protective. But I also loved the way he talked about the drugs. He talked about, “I would never get to the point of losing control because I always knew.” Because he’s very ambitious. “I always knew where I had to be next and I never wanted to be at the place where I couldn’t control where I wanted to be.” I’m sure there were a few exceptions to that, but in general, that was quite truthful.

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You’re known as a very experimental filmmaker and I was wondering how you keep coming up with different ways to look through the camera?

I got sort of bored with 35mm and started going back to 16mm and then when video got more interesting, looking at video. Then as video got smaller and XLR happened, that radically changed the possibilities. Then as the world changes, like with at the beginning of this conversation we talked about the coronavirus effect. And how the Timecode principle, how that then ties in with what is possible in terms of filmmaking, really.

When you were making Timecode, did you know that you were predicting pandemic filmmaking?

No, although looking back I can think where it’d be really useful now.

The Rolling Stones streamed their performance early in the pandemic, is this the future of entertainment and is it an imposition?

I think in a way it is. Obviously at some point we will get coronavirus under some kind of control. But there are dire predictions about what’s coming next in terms of the unleashing of the demons that come through global warming, et cetera, et cetera.

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On the one hand, maybe these variations of these conditions will continue well into the future. But I think even if it was just coronavirus, I’m talking about making films with various people right now, it’s almost like unless you actually acknowledge the world as it is today and has been for the last six months, any film that you make is going to have an air of unreality about it because this is quite definitely a global reality now. The way we’re communicating now and so forth.

I’m doing a masterclass in London at the film school next week and I’m going to be talking just about that to young filmmakers. The best ways to go about making films now.

As a jazz musician, what did you make of Jagger’s classification of jazz from back then?

It was pretty accurate, actually. I’d done the blues documentary with Martin Scorsese, the history of the British Blues, Red, White, and Blues. So, I covered that period and I was fascinated by that unique British period anyway, which is why in a way Marty and I got on so well too was because unlike America, the post war British music scene was heavily into traditional jazz and then bebop. Then folk music, and skiffle, and all those things. They all combined. If you talk to anybody, Eric Clapton, anybody, they’ll all make the same references. Big Bill Broonzy and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and then Woody Guthrie, and so kind of everybody was listening to all those influences and people were coming out of traditional jazz and then making quite dynamic decisions about this, that, and the other.

But the Trad boom was, the commercial aspect of the British jazz movement was very commercial, and immediately commercialized. There are some great musicians, but not the hippest genre in the world, so Jagger’s commented quite rightly if you want to be a young, sexy, happening musician, you’re not going to base your style on your grandfather’s taste and the rest of it. It was a kind of nice point of view. I loved it when he said, “I like the MJQ because of the way they looked and the way they played. I’m not sure I was crazy about the music or something like that.”

And I loved that he said, “We can be like that or we can be something different.” I love that moment in the film where you actually suddenly see the Stones kind of go, “Yep.” That’s pretty different from those two choices. That was, you’re creating a new genre there. And I have to say, my respect for the Rolling Stones went very, very high in making this documentary. I always like the Stones. I preferred more basically a blues band and I was listening to a lot more complicated pop musicians and jazz musicians.

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I read that you’re doing a K-drama about the #MeToo movement. Would that be in the K-pop industry?

Yeah, I became interested in Korean film of course like most filmmakers. And then on an impulse, two and a half years ago, I bought a ticket to Seoul and I went and stayed there for three or four weeks, and just went around meeting people and just trying to get a handle on their film scene, initially. Then, I kind of got hooked on K-dramas as well and started to meet the actors. That’s turned into a project that’s been in development for about a year now. It’s going really, really well, but coming up with this series of scenarios. Sort of loosely around the #MeToo movement, really but just to do with the Korean social pop entertainment scene. And that’s what that was there.

I didn’t know that the Stones had originally thought about asking Ron Wood to replace Brian Jones. As a musician, you said they stuck to their guns. Do you think that would have been more true had they skipped over Mick Taylor and gone straight to Ronnie Wood?

It was interesting because that period, because obviously Jagger comes from a very much blues background. But by that time he was a megastar and the Stones were very much “Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.” He was making movies, he was hanging out at the clubs, he was the hip guy. So obviously his horizons were expanding and he said that having Mick Taylor in the band really expanded his horizons as a songwriter because the voicings that Mick Taylor used. Mick did incredibly lyrical runs as the guitarist. Not a straight down the line blues player by any stretch of the imagination. A great blues player, but that’s not all he did.

So, I can imagine at that period, it would have been totally understandable if they’d continued to go in a different direction. I think what happened when Mick Taylor walked out, there was a kind of obvious cause of action to go to Ronnie. That probably then put Keith in a more comfortable zone in terms of the two-guitar thing because I would imagine that with Mick Taylor in the band, Keith’s role must have been definitely not so much the two-guitar thing because they are functioning at different levels. Probably in a way, back to a kind of grassroots level by bringing Ronnie back in.

Also, he looks like them. They were like brothers at that point. There’s a kind of a, suddenly a cohesiveness to the band as a band in a different way. Mick had a wider range in terms of songwriting and performance. A different way to go, but I think he was more than happy to go back into the kind of grassroots journey that they’d been on.

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It’s very interesting how one musician can radically alter the destiny of the band, the longest lasting band in rock and roll history basically now.

Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me will be available as a Virtual Cinema release at starting Sept. 18 running through October. It will be released on DVD, Blu-ray and deluxe hardback book release on October 9.