"Brian Jones was the best bunch of guys I ever met," Keith Richards once said. A new Stephen Woolley-directed Brian Jones biopic, Stoned (Screen Media) -- currently playing at Ballantyne Village -- attempts to explore the various complex facets of that most iconic Rolling Stone. Richards and foil Mick Jagger may be more (in)famous, but late Stones founder Brian Jones haunts rock & roll myth more than any other '60s pop martyr. As Stoned's tagline goes: "Before Jimi and Janis, there was Brian."
On par with MLK and Bob Dylan, Brian Jones was a man for his times. A sensitive if twisted soul, Jones emerged on the early-1960s scene just as trad jazz was giving way to R&B (emphasis on blues) as a popular interest in the UK. As a teen in Cheltenham, he'd been presciently devoted to American music, particularly blues, and flouted social conventions of dreary postwar England via his bohemian sensibility and precocious sexual adventures. Employing a temporal kaleidoscope, Stoned, a speculative look at the last three months of Jones' life, flashes back briefly to the shame Jones' adolescent pursuits brought him. Later, the film sketches how these abiding passions brought him both wild success as an architect of Swinging London and perilous darkness before his premature murder in 1969, at age 27.
Director Woolley's admiration for the Stones and their Chelsea milieu is evident in every frame, but the film remains uneven due to the script's lack of centered narrative. Only diehard students of rock and/or postwar bohemia could fill in a lot of blanks. And curiously for a rock biopic, music hovers in the wings.
Music supervisors Karen Elliott and Becca Gatrell fell into typical traps of scoring '60s-set flicks: In the Paris opium den scene where his new lover Anita Pallenberg (Monet Mazur) turns Brian Jones (Leo Gregory) onto LSD -- cue Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," of course. And Traffic's raga-style "Paper Sun" accompanies key scenes set in Africa. Generally, the soundtrack's insubstantial, especially Haley Glennie-Smith's insipid take on Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain." Aside from Gregory's fine portrayal of Jones alongside great support work from David Morrissey (as Stones road manager Tom Keylock) and Paddy Considine (as Jones' desirous and resentful builder Frank Thorogood), all of the other characters are unrealized ciphers. Oddly, a dead-ringer for Mick Jagger was cast yet he (Luke de Woolfson) mostly pouts his way through the periphery of scenes, and there's a dearth of live performances. Perhaps the filmmakers feared the surviving Stones' wrath; the Jagger-Richards catalog is conspicuously absent from the film's diegesis (probably too cost-prohibitive). Of course, the story does focus primarily on Jones' final days of isolation from the group and London.
However, eviscerating Mazur's characterization of Anita Pallenberg, Jones' succubus and Stones femme fatale, is a massive problem. Stoned wants to portray Pallenberg as creative catalyst, destroyer and queen of freaks but reduces the couple's entire courtship to a grainy, MTV-style montage. And so almost nothing's at stake when Richards' character (Ben Whishaw) absconds with the love of Jones' life shortly before he sacks the "Golden Stone" from his own band.
The filmmakers are obviously enamored of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's 1968 masterpiece Performance (my all-time favorite film, which co-starred Jagger and Pallenberg). And so they rely too heavily on Performance's helter-skelter language of mirroring, menacing androgyny, extreme close-up, odd camera angles, oversaturated color and ethnic marginalia without tethering it to strong narrative (Performance villain Johnny Shannon even has a cameo). Gregory sometimes seems to be channeling Jagger's "sampling" of Jones' character in the earlier film.
Woolley repeats Performance's race problem from the second scene, when a lone black British "dollybird" grooving to "Little Red Rooster" is meant to telegraph the Stones' nascent cool. Considine's Thorogood is fleetingly accorded cool status, when Jones compares him to black Texas bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. And Irma Thomas' original, gritty version of "Time Is on My Side" blares to add gravitas to Jones' deathbed scene where none exists.
Stoned also manages to fetishize German director Volker Schlöndorff's moment in the '60s European nouvelle vague, as well as nick structural framing from Citizen Kane and, chiefly, Sunset Boulevard's central device of posthumous pool narration. Out of this disjointed mix, the Morocco sequence in which Jones loses Pallenberg to Richards and scenes demonstrating Thorogood's sly attraction to Jones' hedonistic lifestyle at his pastoral retreat Cotchford Farm shine best.
Stoned is still worth the trip to Ballantyne, due to its attempt to illuminate cultural forces at work in the 1960s, and for its clarification of one of rock's great mysteries. Any Stones fan will likely derive some satisfaction.