‘The Stones and Brian Jones’ – New Documentary Spotlights The Legacy of the Band’s Late Founder
Brian Jones pictured in 1964, the same year The Rolling Stones released their first two albums. Photo: Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
No rock band that’s still standing has a legacy of music and mythology as rich as the Rolling Stones. And as they bask in the current success of the chart-topping Hackney Diamonds, their first album of original songs in 18 years, a long shadow from the past has come back to haunt them.
Brian Jones founded the Stones and came up with their name, lifted from a song by Muddy Waters. Jones was the band’s leader and musical virtuoso, the pretty one with the best hair, the most girlfriends, and more fan mail than all the others combined.
That soon changed. Edged out of the spotlight by Mick Jagger, he eventually sank into an oblivion of drugs and alcohol to the point that he could no longer play. In the summer of 1969, three weeks after being fired by the band, Jones was found dead after being pulled from the bottom of the pool at his East Sussex, U.K., country estate — once the home of A.A. Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh.
Jones was the first in a line of 1960s rock stars to die suddenly at the age 27. But unlike Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, he didn’t become an icon. If he’s remembered at all, it’s not for his life, but for the mysterious circumstances of his death.
Veteran British filmmaker Nick Broomfield has attempted to change that with his new documentary, The Stones and Brian Jones. Now playing selected theatres and on Apple TV and video-on-demand platforms, it’s a time-capsule swirl of archival footage that draws an intimate, complex portrait of the Stones’ fallen angel — as both a vulnerable, well-mannered musical genius and a predatory narcissist who lost his way in a haze of celebrity and drugs.
Broomfield says he’d been intrigued by Jones ever since encountering him on a train as a 14-year-old schoolboy; being surprised at how friendly he was then being shocked by his death six years later. “Meeting him was a seminal moment,” recalls the director, speaking via Zoom from his home in the English countryside. “It informed and reflected my growing up in the 1960s. His life encapsulated the ’60s. He embodied both the enormous creativity of that time – the experimentation and freedom and recklessness – and also the tragedy of it.”
The 75-year-old filmmaker has done his share of exhuming the lives of late musicians, with documentaries about Kurt Cobain, Leonard Cohen, Whitney Houston, and murdered rapper Tupac Shakur. But while he investigated conspiracy theories around the deaths of Cobain and Tupac, Broomfield does not even mention the allegations that Jones was murdered, which has been the subject of several books. “I looked into it and and I thought it was just one big woolly mess,” he says “It was a waste of time going into a theory I didn’t believe in.”
He also spoke at length about it with Bill Wyman, the Stones’ original bass player. Wyman’s girlfriend at time had been best friend’s with Jones’s partner, Swedish model Anna Wohlin, who pulled Jones from the bottom of the pool and tried to revive him. “Anna had told Bill over and over what had happened and didn’t mention anything about foul play,” says Broomfield. “Ten years later she writes a book saying it was murder. Bill said, ‘I know she was telling the truth at the time. I guess she ran out of money and needed to come up with something else — the book.’ ”
None of that is in the film. But as the only Rolling Stone that Broomfield interviews in the documentary, Wyman plays a fascinating role as he explains the inspired instrumentation that Jones brought to the band’s classic hits, from the sidewinding sitar in Paint It Black to the contrapuntal flute in She’s a Rainbow. Once the archetype of the silent bass player, Wyman is, by now, almost as obscure a part of the Stones’ legacy as Jones. And to see this elfin 87-year-old sit in front of his computer and voice Jones’ instrumental parts with animated glee is a revelation. Wyman is also the Stones’ unofficial archivist. “When you go into his place,” says Broomfield, “there all these shelves of diaries – he kept a diary for every day he was with them, no matter what happened. It’s a pretty incredible resource.”
The director made no attempt to interview Mick Jagger or Keith Richards, though they are present in archival footage. “I know so many other filmmakers who’ve embarked on doing a wonderful film about the Stones and the film either never gets finished or it’s a shadow of what they wanted to say,” he says. “I’ve been in this business too long to get into all that. You don’t want to invite a nightmare. I didn’t want to be accountable.”
Broomfield talks about the Stones the way insiders talk about the British Royal Family as the Firm. “Mick has a vision of what he wants with the band and the story he wants to tell. Just because you’re the world’s greatest frontman, you don’t have to be the greatest storyteller.”
The film’s story is that of a golden boy gone wild, an A-student from a proper middle-class home who rebelled against authority in his teens and became consumed with playing music and chasing girls. Jones’ behaviour made Jagger look like choirboy. He dropped out of school after getting his first girlfriend pregnant. They were both 16, and when their child was put up for adoption, he adopted her family.
“This became a pattern,” says Broomfield, in the film’s narration. “Adopting other families, getting the daughters pregnant and then leaving.” By the time he died, Jones had fathered at least five children with as many women, while abandoning all of them and their mothers.
Jones’ own parents were appalled by his obsession with “jazz” and kicked him out of the house when was 17. The film “is the portrait of someone who is very talented but didn’t have the support of his parents,” says Broomfield. “His father was a designer of jet engines, a scientist and mathematician. I’m sure Brian respected that. There was a lot of the dad-in-the-know in Brian, and he spoke the most elegant Queen’s English. He was very different from other members of the band, who tended to have approval from their parents. He was hung out to dry. There was no home for him anywhere.”
Including the band. Not long after Jones founded the Stones as a blues cover band in 1962, Jagger emerged as its charismatic lead singer. “Once [manager] Andrew Loog Oldham came in,” says Broomfield, “instead of being at the front with Mick, Brian was shunted to the side. And there was a policy of not letting him and Bill and Charlie do interviews.”
As Oldman pushed Jagger and Richards to write original songs, Jones was further isolated. His behaviour didn’t help. “He had a lot of insecurity and self-loathing,” says Broomfield, “and treated the people who loved him almost the worst, like the women, and Bill. It’s almost like he didn’t respect people who liked him.” In the film, as Wyman recalls, “he had a side that was, I wouldn’t say evil, but he was really cruel sometimes. If he didn’t get his way, he’d be very aggressive and then all apologetic – ‘Sorry man, I didn’t mean it, stubbing that cigarette out on your hand in the car.’ ”
The film alludes to the legendary story of Keith Richards waking up from a dream in the middle of the night at the Clearwater Motel in Florida with the opening riff of Satisfaction in his head and putting it on a little tape recorder. That song, marking the Stones’ transition from rhythm and blues to pop rock, “was, in a way, the absolute end of Brian,” say Broomfield. In the film the model Zouzou, Jones’ girlfriend du jour, recalls that he hated the song, saying it was “vulgar, awful, out of tune.” That same night at the motel, says Broomfield, Jones and Wyman had picked up a couple of women and Jones “really mistreated” one of them. The band, he adds, “were so upset with him in the morning that they used one of their strongmen to break one of his ribs. Bill told me this story but I didn’t put it in the film.”
“We live in such a judgmental age,” says the director. “As a storyteller, you don’t always go for the most sensational thing. It would overshadow so much about what was good about the guy. My task was more to understand his failings. There were so many failings. But how did they come about? What caused him to go so badly off the rails?”
As the stories and myths of the Rolling Stones keep gathering moss, we may be no closer to having the answer.