“I never got beyond 29 in my head,” Ronnie Wood says at the beginning of the documentary Somebody Up There Likes Me. “So to be 70, it’s just so weird. It’s like being in a Dali painting. It’s very surreal.”
Directed by Academy Award nominee Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), Somebody Up There is not your bombastic, run-of-the-mill, rock-star documentary. It’s mostly quiet and introspective, (but not boring). Wood, the exuberant guitarist for the Rolling Stones and Faces, talks about his newfound sobriety and maturity, and a musical career that’s spanned more than half a century, in this low-key film.
Figgis interviews Ronnie’s iconic bandmates – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Rod Stewart as well as blues singer Imelda May and Wood’s friend, artist Damien Hirst. There are no tawdry or groundbreaking new revelations, but we hear a lot about the musical and personal ties that have made Wood a key player in three iconic British bands.
Mick says, “Arena shows became slightly humorous because of his (Ronnie’s) personality. Ronnie brought a sense of fun to it.” If Bill Wyman was the quiet one, Ronnie was the approachable, extroverted one.
(On the gatefold sleeve of Black n Blue, there’s Ronnie happily twirling a stick of incense, while the rest of the band members look somber or disinterested while posing with their incense. A music critic at the time wrote that Ronnie was too “silly” to be a Rolling Stone and ruined their sinister image. Hey, you can’t be a minion of Satan forever; at some point you need to cultivate a happier image.)
Damien Hirst talks about driving Ronnie to rehab and buying him art supplies upon his return. (Wood has forged a successful second career in art for the last three decades, with many of his paintings and sketches exhibited all over the world.)
Keith does mention the one-upmanship that went on between them for awhile. He also reveals that the pair’s friendship was relatively peaceful, expect for one time – “I punched him, he punched me, and we both fell over the couch laughing, and that was about it,” Keith remembers.
There’s a sequence with Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin’s notorious manager, talking about shenanigans dealing with promoters and other aspects of touring life. The interview seems extraneous, even though Grant did manage the Jeff Beck Group during Ronnie’s tenure with the band. Grant ended up firing Ronnie, which turned out to be a mistake, and Ronnie returned to the group on his own terms.
Figgis introduces tarot-like cards called as a framing device to introduce a few of Wood’s revelations about his life. He talks about his first girlfriend, who died tragically; his lung cancer surgery; and his friendship with Keith Richards.
The best parts of the film show the artist at work – in his studio sketching a model, playing a harmonica, and playing a snippet of “Ooh La La” on acoustic guitar. The film includes archival clips of the Stones, the Jeff Beck Group, Faces, and a great black and white clip of Ronnie’s solo project, Woody and Friends, with Keith Richards, Ian McLagan, and Willie Weeks. However, there’s no mention of the New Barbarians, Ronnie’s late 1970s project with Keith.
Wood talks about his childhood with his parents and two older brothers in Hillington, West London. His dad would nip down to the local pub, drink too much, and end up sleeping in someone’s garden. His older brothers were drinkers, too, but they also introduced Ronnie to playing music and an eclectic bunch of characters at impromptu house parties. Like many rockers born right after World War II, Wood went to art school, but his job interviews didn’t go smoothly, so he choose music as a career. His first band interestingly enough in a UK band called the Birds. (This explains why the U.S. band is spelled Byrds.)
Ronnie lived the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle to the hilt – smoking (25-30 cigarettes a day), and drinking, with forays into cocaine, heroin, and freebasing. After several visits to rehab, he is now sober and enjoying his golden years, creating art and still rocking (that is, when COVID-19 runs its course and the Stones start touring again.)
There’s only a short interview with Ronnie’s wife Sally and a glimpse of their twins near the end of the film. Although there are some heartfelt moments in Somebody Up There Likes Me, the film leaves you wanting to know more about Wood. How did he meet his current wife? What about his marriage to model and entrepreneur Jo Kerslake Wood? And we only get a few brief looks at paintings in progress; no tours of completed artwork. Still, Somebody Up There Likes Me gives us enough information to the viewer engaged, and withholds enough to keep the viewer interested in searching for more.