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It might or might not be true, as Nick Broomfield declares in his new feature documentary, that “most people today” haven’t heard of Brian Jones. If it’s true of most young music fans, then a) yikes and b) The Stones and Brian Jones is here to bridge the generation gap. The Magnolia release, which is receiving a one-night theatrical showcase 10 days before its Nov. 17 general release, joins an ever-expanding pack of doc portraits exploring boomer musicians who led the rock revolution of the ’60s and ’70s.
Broomfield’s earlier takes on pop culture giants — among them Kurt Cobain, Whitney Houston, Leonard Cohen and Biggie and Tupac — have ranged from basic to divisive to lurid. In this case, taking a deep dive into public and private archives, he emerges with a surprisingly poignant study of the Rolling Stones co-founder, a middle-class kid who rebelled against his upbringing, found his calling as a multi-instrumentalist and arranger, lost his way in drugs and died young, less than a month after being kicked out of his ultra-famous band, becoming the first member of the era’s so-called 27 Club.
The Stones and Brian Jones
Vivid and affecting.
Release date: Tuesday, Nov. 7
Director: Nick Broomfield
1 hour 38 minutes
Like Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, Jones was a creative force who wound up being fired from the group he once led (but Jones, to his apparent regret, was not a songwriter). It was his vision — and a classified ad he placed — that brought together the lineup of Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman. Along with the rich selection of photos and footage, Broomfield offers a look at that 1962 ad in Jazz News. Seeking rhythm-and-blues bandmates, Jones wrote: “Must be keen to rehearse. Plenty of interesting work available.”
Interesting work and low-paying to boot. Keith Richards, in an old interview, recalls the cold winters in The Stones’ squalid London flat and their drive to push on: “It had to get better, even if it didn’t get fantastic.” But fantastic it would soon be, with international tours, TV appearances and off-the-charts popularity. Fans’ sexual frenzy is loud and clear in the well-curated footage of early shows and a riot at Sydney Airport. Then there would be the hobnobbing with the aristocracy and the jet-set girlfriends: Anita Pallenberg, Marianne Faithfull (heard in conversation with biographer David Dalton) and ZouZou, who appears in a new straight-to-camera interview, a vivid presence.
One of the key arguments of Broomfield’s film is that The Rolling Stones’ pop stardom was the antithesis of what Jones sought. He was too musically adventurous to be called an R&B purist, but it was the Chicago blues that inspired and drove him; he took the band’s name from a Muddy Waters song. It was a love that everyone in the group shared — a clip of them introducing Howlin’ Wolf to a TV audience is a gem. But Jones found no thrill in the group’s chart success. According to one of several exes heard in the film, he loathed “Satisfaction.”
In the band’s early days, the bulk of the fan mail went to Jones. His bandmates looked up to him too. One of his exes, Linda Lawrence, notes Jagger’s awe of his way with women, and Richards’ awe of his way with a guitar. But soon manager Andrew Loog Oldham had sidelined Jones as spokesperson for the band and turned the spotlight on hitmaking songwriters Jagger and Richards, aka The Glimmer Twins. The rivalrous power dynamic between Jones and frontman Jagger is captured in brilliant subtlety in the glances between them during an impromptu interview.
But the deeper throughline of The Stones and Brian Jones involves the primal wound of a prodigal son. Broomfield opens the doc with a striking quote about parents and children from Jones and closes it with a quietly wrenching one from his father, Lewis. Years before he was thrown out of his band, Jones was kicked out of his family home. He was 17. Lewis couldn’t understood, nor abide, what was going on with his “model schoolboy.” Broomfield has dug up a clip of Jones at Pate’s Grammar School in Cheltenham, and home movies of him with his first girlfriend. She would be the first of many. Cut loose from his home, Jones sought refuge with girlfriends and their families. He became a serial impregnator; by the time of his death at 27, he’d fathered at least five children. “He lived his life very fast,” comments Jagger.
All the Stones, including the late Watts, are heard from in the doc. (Freddie Fox performs Jones’ voiceover when the comments are drawn from written material.) But only bassist Wyman, who left the group in 1993, participates directly in the film — he’s credited as “historical consultant” (and his wife, Suzanne Accosta Wyman, as one of two historical co-producers).
Seated at his desk, audio files a click away on his computer, Wyman is effusive about Jones’ creative vision and musicianship. His face lights up with childlike glee when he points out the tremolo Jones brought to a song, making it something greater. And he recalls how cruel this genius could be, a casual sadist wielding lit cigarettes — and how easy it was to forgive him.
Broomfield, known for inserting himself into his docs, here keeps his involvement to an effective minimum, his description of a teenage encounter with Jones particularly moving. In the early going of The Stones and Brian Jones, the director uses a distracting number of captions over performance footage to ID the players and, in one instance, what they’re playing. This perhaps underestimates the audience. But there’s also great feeling in it — a fan’s nudging insistence that you listen up, pay attention, that these cascading notes and that slide guitar matter.