These days, with a new Beatles single topping the charts and the release of an original album from The Rolling Stones, one can’t help but think of that old adage about everything old being new again. The timing of Nick Broomfield’s documentary, The Stones & Brian Jones, couldn’t be more perfect. Fresh material tends to make the public reconsider a band’s back catalogue, and a documentary – any documentary – will be of interest to many. The promise of a refreshing perspective is too good to pass up too. In the case of Stones founding member Jones, it’s also an opportune time to revisit the mysterious circumstances of his tragic death in 1969.
Too bad that’s not what Broomfield delivers here. In The Stones & Brian Jones, he rehashes familiar material when it comes to the musician’s life and career. Yes, there’s a more detailed insight into the person that was Brian Jones, but Broomfield is trying to do too much in this film for it to have the intended emotional resonance.
In 1962, Brian Jones formed The Rolling Stones when he placed an ad, and Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Bill Wyman answered. They shared a love of American blues music, as did so many British rockers of the period. Brian was the leader of the band in the early days, and himself named them after a Muddy Waters song. As the decade progressed and their fame grew, his grasp on the reins slipped away. He grew more miserable and increasingly bitter, as he plunged himself into the drug culture of the rockstar lifestyle.
Broomfield creates a poignant autobiography of the musician and a competent history of the early days of the band, but the film doesn’t answer claims that even it brings up. This documentarian’s natural penchant for probing controversial subjects as he did with Kurt Cobain’s death in Kurt and Courtney certainly raises the promise that he would go further with this subject.
Perhaps the main reason for falling short in this case is that he inserts himself into the narrative. The Stones & Brian Jones is a fan’s perspective, an act of hero worship. This personal diary feature muddles an already impenetrable situation. How does one interrogate a ghostly subject whose iconic status you clearly revere? Besides one minute Broomfield’s sharing a personal story of meeting the rock musician and the next his voice is filling in narrative details. This dual voiceover function disrupts the flow of the film.
The Stones & Brian Jones relies mostly on archival footage and the reminiscences of people who knew the star personally, particularly his old girlfriends. There are times when Broomfield manages a bracingly hypnotic weave of sound and imagery. These voices speak of Jones’ bourgeois upbringing by uptight straight-laced parents who kicked him out as a teenager. They also build up a picture of the disturbing, pathological pattern he developed of creating, then abandoning, his own families. In each case, he would form a relationship with the daughter, eventually father a baby and then skip out without ever taking care of that child. This happened five times by the time Jones was just twenty-five.
Perhaps the most revealing – and frustrating – parts of the film are the women’s accounts of their relationships with Jones. They uncover the person in intimate detail but stop short when their memories approach controversy. Zouzou, the ’60s French actress and pop singer, figures prominently here as does Linda Lawrence, one of Jones’ exes and the mother of one of his children. It’s through their testimonies that we learn about some of Jones’ intense insecurities and his crippling paranoia. They talk about his sweet side, but they also hint at a dark side. While the film includes a couple of instances of his capacity for cruelty, it never fully investigates this sinister side of him and is content to simply allow these voices to paint the picture instead of interrogating the details of these disturbing claims.
The Stones & Brian Jones is a decent introduction to the band and provides an important focus on a musician who was instrumental in making the greatest rock and roll band what they are today. It will be especially poignant for some, considering that Brian Jones and his legacy have been overshadowed by his larger-than-life band mates. Broomfield provides a testament to his genius, and this is indeed a lament for a young victim of the sex, drugs, and rock and roll era.
Bill Wyman is the only actual Stone to appear on camera while the others are disembodied voices or speak in old footage that is frustratingly familiar. Without any current discussion, this aspect of the film falls disappointingly flat. Yes, Brian Jones is in danger of being forgotten by history, but this new documentary doesn’t really fulfill its promise of revealing surprising information on the dynamics between him and the rest of the band, especially around the time of his death. The Stones & Brian Jones is a beginning and, hopefully, one day someone else will take this discussion further. As long as you haven’t seen some of these archival clips a million times before – as many fans will have – this film will leave you satisfied.
THE STONES AND BRIAN JONES opens November 17 in Toronto, Vancouver, London and Waterloo. The film is also available November 17 to rent or buy across Canada on the Apple TV app and other VOD platforms.