Brian Jones seems all but forgotten these days, at least outside his native England. He founded the Rolling Stones, but they passed him by, leaving him to gather moss, or at least ingest a great deal of grass.
Jones essentially created white-boy blues, using his band to bring the sounds of American blues to a British audience at a time when American blues artists were obscure, even in their own country. Stoned, opening today (Friday) at Shattuck Cinemas, depicts Jones’ rise and fall, from his childhood in upper-class Cheltenham to the dizzying heights of rock ‘n’ roll success to his ignominious death at the bottom of his swimming pool.
The opening credits show the Stones performing at a small club, and the staging of the scene is indicative of Jones’ role in the band: The rest of the Stones are in dark clothes and standing in the shadows while Jones wears a white shirt and is illuminated by the spotlight. This is an exaggerated depiction for the sake of dramatization, but check out virtually any of the band’s Jones-era record covers and you’ll see precisely this sort of composition. Jones is almost always dressed differently and standing apart from or in front of the other band members. He was their leader, their founder, the heart and soul of the group. But not for long.
Jones was basically a blues purist; if it had been up to him, the Stones might never have done anything other than cover blues and rock ‘n’ roll classics. His decline as leader of the band began once their producer, Andrew Loog Oldham, convinced the band that they must start writing original material if they wanted to have a future.
The problem for Jones was that he couldn’t write. He was a remarkable musician; he could seemingly pick up any instrument and learn to play it within an hour or two. Anything out of the ordinary on those early Stones albums is more than likely Brian’s doing: marimba, sitar, dulcimer. His talent lay in transforming the raw materials of his bandmates’ work into something quite unique. He was not a songwriter, but an interpreter.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards took on the songwriting duties and excelled, turning out a string of blues-based rock and pop classics and catapulting the band to the top of the charts, positioning them as the Beatles’ primary rivals. Stoned hints at this but doesn’t overtly express it, and this is perhaps the film’s most significant flaw: It speaks to the initiated, to those who already know the tale. Those who don’t may find the film’s plot points and timeline confusing and the characters’ motivations a bit vague.
Along with the creative responsibilities, Jagger and Richards began assuming leadership roles within the band, further alienating Jones. The band was maturing, developing its talents and range, while Jones himself was essentially stagnating, content to wallow in success and excess. His powerful ego, combined with his fragility and insecurity and growing dependence on drugs, quickly made him a liability as his total immersion in the benefits of fame led to increasingly erratic behavior. And it certainly didn’t help matters when Jones’ longtime girlfriend Anita Pallenberg left him for Keith Richards.
The movie is flawed from the start in that it takes one possible scenario for Jones’ death and plays it through, the scenario being that Jones was murdered. An apparently unsubstantiated 1993 deathbed confession by Jones’ building contractor provides the rough outline of the musician’s demise. A more interesting film could have been made without taking a position on Jones’ death, instead depicting the mystery and intrigue that surrounded the tragedy, and the circumstances that launched a troubled rock star into martyrdom. Biopics often make this mistake, replacing the messiness and ambiguity of life with simple plot resolutions and facile explanations of character and motivation.
First-time director Woolley makes a few unfortunate rookie mistakes. For whatever reason, there are no Stones songs on the soundtrack, nothing to denote Jones’ actual contribution to the music of the era. Instead we hear plenty of his influences—Robert Jones, Muddy Waters, etc.— and that’s appropriate. But we also hear several current artists performing very modern versions of blues classics, and the juxtaposition can be jarring. It is likely meant to demonstrate Jones’ influence on the blues-based artists who followed him, but it doesn’t quite work.
There is also a completely moronic sequence, shot like a music video, in which Gregory lip-synchs his way through “Not Fade Away” during a montage sequence of significant moments in the life of Brian. The scene threatens to sink the film with camp and cheek and should have been left on the cutting room floor.
But for what it is, the movie is quite good. The direction is for the most part effective and the performances are solid. Luke de Woolfson as Jagger, though it’s only a small part, nails the singer’s mannerisms, off stage and on. And Leo Gregory brings out the fierceness and fragility of a man who acquired all the fame and fortune he could have wanted, yet immersed himself in it to the point of drowning.
Director: Stephen Woolley
Cast: Leo Gregory, Paddy Considine, David Morrissey, Tuva Novotny, Amelia Warner, Ben Whishaw, Monet Mazur, Luke De Woolfson, James D. White
Playing: Shattuck Cinemas