Breakdown of a Tragedy: A Review of The Stones and Brian Jones (2023)

With The Stones and Brian Jones, veteran English documentarian Nick Broomfield weaves a captivating collage of revealing film footage and candid interviews to paint a poignant portrait of the creator of pop music’s second biggest band. Though an idolized rock star, Brian Jones was so wracked by personal problems that he relentlessly pursued a path of self-destruction. In doing so, he became the founding member of “the 27 Club” of famous rockers whose excess killed them at age 27 (including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse). The movie also conveys the youth culture of 1960s Britain that nurtured Jones and hastened his dissolution. Throughout, the documentary raises many questions about the powerfully seductive allure of fame and the dangerous ways it can enable people to act their worst, with disastrous results.

Despite its brevity, the whirlwind life of Brian Jones is shown to be one of dizzyingly dramatic contrasts: so musically talented, handsome, charming, successful, and idolized by millions, yet so tortured by insecurity, loneliness, and paranoia, all amplified by an accelerating, gargantuan intake of booze and drugs.

It was certainly a life of enormous promise. Having grown up in a middle-class home, Jones would assemble and initially lead the Rolling Stones, the musical group whose massive impact only the Beatles would exceed. Jones was such a musical virtuoso that he was proficient on guitar, piano, harmonica, marimba, mellotron, saxophone, clarinet, and still more instruments. Can you imagine the Stones’ passionately pulsating 1966 hit song, “Paint It Black,” without Jones’ remarkable sitar contribution, or 1967’s hauntingly hypnotic “Ruby Tuesday” sans Brian’s beautiful recorder flute?

Though a fan of Jones’ music, Broomfield still pulls back the curtain to let us at least glimpse the man’s dark side as well, and how ironic that the acutely sensitive child who so craved love and affection from perhaps emotionally constipated parents would become a supremely selfish narcissist. In fact, Jones left a long trainwreck of abused young ladies and at least five illegitimate children (though I have read six) with as many women (mostly teenagers) for whom he seems to have cared and done nothing. Whatever Jones’ reserved, traditional parents’ faults, they at least gave him a stable family and an education.

Like Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, Jones is a poster boy for the notion we must “separate the artist from the man” to appreciate his art since, well beyond the typical hedonistic rock star, Jones exhibited a sociopathic streak seemingly devoid of the slightest pangs of conscience. He was not only unfaithful to his many girlfriends (surprise) but, despite his wealth, the film shows no trace of his ever providing for any of his many children. When one came with his mother to try to see him, Jones and his latest conquest merely laughed at them from his upstairs window as they stood forlorn in the street. He also enjoyed secretly spiking people’s drinks with powerful drugs, flicking cigarette ashes in a bandmate’s hair, and posing in a Nazi stormtrooper uniform.

No matter how emotionally Dickensian the film hints Jones’ childhood may have been, only the most naïve, hippy dippy liberal could excuse Jones’ utter indifference, casual cruelty, and even sadism toward those closest to him. Dennis Prager warns that victims can become the most dangerous people of all because, if lacking a moral compass, they can pervert their victimhood to justify the unjustifiable. Unchecked, there is no end to what horrors can be explained away. But can any of Hitler’s colossal crimes be excused because his father beat him into a coma? Should Stalin be forgiven a single casualty in his Gulag Archipelago since his father beat him until he urinated blood?

As to the charge that singer Sir Mick Jagger and lead guitarist Keith Richards were somehow mean to fire Jones from the band he created, how could his bandmates have done otherwise by 1969? In the recording studio, Jones’ drug-induced stupor had long deformed the once innovative instrumentalist into a pathetic, space-wasting distraction. Though the film implies Jagger and Richards turning off Jones’ studio amplifier was somehow hurtful teasing, was it not more likely an act of tactful mercy for all concerned? Even if Jones had not been dismissed from the group, his mounting drug busts would have legally prevented him from embarking on the Rolling Stones’ imminent 1969 American concert tour.

All the supposed mystery clouding Jones’ death by drowning in his pool due to drink and drugs notwithstanding, Broomfield proves no one who knew Jones could have been at all surprised. With his massive and mounting abuse of alcohol, amphetamines, acid, and sleeping pills, how else could this story have ended? Just how chemically crippled must you be to get fired for being a druggie by Keith Richards? Even when he and Jagger told him he was no longer in the group, Richards says Jones did not seem to fully understand since he was lost somewhere “in the stratosphere.” Though perhaps Broomfield’s heretofore most famous documentary, Kurt & Courtney, examines the theory that Nirvana grunge rocker Kurt Cobain may have been murdered despite the obvious physical evidence he shot himself, it is striking how Broomfield betrays not the slightest doubt that Jones alone penned his obituary.

In spite of ardent Jones fans’ claim that the Rolling Stones’ finest phase was the one with (and because of) Brian from 1962 to 1969, a quite credible case can be made that he was irrelevant to the band’s massive, long-term success. Though a remarkable instrumentalist, Jones utterly failed to develop any songwriting talent, without which the group would have soon disappeared into obscurity as just another cover band.

Instead, it was Jagger and Richards whose musical vision grew well beyond Jones’ obsessive blues to add major servings of pop, rock, and country to the band’s aural mix and who wrote the astonishing string of hit songs that would make the Stones superstars. Way more so than Jones’ spiraling drug dependency, the film shows that it was the Glimmer Twins’ considerable composing talents that saw Brian reduced from the leader of the group to a sideman, albeit an ever less functional one.

As the movie’s exciting concert scenes make clear, Jagger and Richards also each developed a far stronger stage presence than Jones ever had. Nor could Jones sing or compete with Jagger and Richards in terms of charisma or wit. And it was only after Jones’ exit that the Stones achieved by far their greatest commercial and critical success with an amazing streak of innovative hit albums from 1969’s Let It Bleed through 1983’s Undercover.

When George Harrison got sick of John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney treating him like a studio session player, “the quiet Beatle” summoned the discipline to develop his own songwriting skills to earn more songs on Beatle albums and a major solo career after the band broke up. But Jones reacted to his ever-shrinking role in the Rolling Stones by choosing to sink ever deeper into self-pity and drugs.

If not for his firing, early death, and the conspiracy theories it spawned, would not Jones have remained a sideman ever more in the background on the Stones’ stage, like bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts? And what would be wrong with that? The Stones’ legendary rhythm section was phenomenal. The problem is that, long before his death, Jones let alcohol and drugs deprive him of being a remotely reliable or competent bandmate which is precisely why he was canned.

Even had Jones lived, could his public reputation have survived being inevitably exposed as a extreme satyr who so blithely harmed so many young women and children? If yes, what does that say about the moral bar to which society holds its celebrities?

If not so handsome and playing in a popular band, could Jones have gotten away with inflicting so much pain on so many others or be of any interest today? Perhaps the only reason we care about him is because his life offers such a hyper-extreme cautionary tale. Indeed, how many folks recall the better, albeit quiet and scandal-free, Stones guitarist Mick Taylor who replaced Jones during the group’s 1969-74 golden years?

Perhaps my biggest criticism of The Stones and Brian Jones is actually the ultimate compliment: I so wish it was much longer than 92 minutes. As remarkably well edited and paced as the film is, and with absolutely no filler, it should have made more time to examine Jones’ strained relationship with his parents to explain precisely why they threw him out of the house at 17 and why Jones nevertheless remained so concerned with what they thought of him ever afterward. Indeed, the reckless rock star with legions of screaming fans still wrote his parents of an impending visit to warn them his hair was long – but insist it was clean. When famously busted for drugs, he sent them a desperate telegram begging them not to judge him. But if he so craved his mother and father’s approval, why did he persist in stubbornly embracing such a debauched life – and so shamelessly in public?

Though Broomfield is to be commended for not ignoring the disturbing sides of his subject, he is still too soft on Jones for leaving out so many of the most sobering facts that have all been well documented in many respected biographies and news articles, like Jones beating girlfriends (Keith Richards did not so much steal Brian’s beautiful lover Anita Pallenberg as save her from his violence), whipping prostitutes, and caring so little about his children that two sons actually shared the same first and middle names.

If the film focused on anyone but a long-dead rock star, could Broomfield get away with not bluntly condemning such a violent cad, especially in the post-Me, Too Era? Although, to be fair, if the documentary dwelled on Jones’ sins, the story might be too sordid for viewers to stomach.

While not excusing Jones’ outrageous excesses, could they be better understood if shown to have been exacerbated by a bipolar disorder or some other psychiatric condition? It would have been most intriguing for the movie to examine the many possible psychological problems plaguing Jones since he appears to have clearly self-medicated major mental difficulties.

Why did Broomfield not at least mention the conspiracy theory that Jones was murdered, if only to refute it, particularly since there have been so many articles, books, and even police inquiries investigating it? After all, the director’s Kurt and Courtney examined a far less plausible murder conspiracy theory.

Much like Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 2021 Hemingway documentary, The Stones and Brian Jones profiles an often-detestable man, but reveals him to be complicated enough to elicit some sympathy – never condoning any of his considerable character flaws but instead helping us see how deeply hurt he was and yet capable of making joyful music and occasionally even being kind.

Perhaps that is the ultimate accolade for this film because, despite all Jones’ callous self-centeredness, I still cannot help feeling sorry for him since – as one of the young mothers he ditched said of him magnanimously – he comes across as desperately insecure, lonely, depressed, and seemingly incapable of confronting his problems. Ironically, Jones’ biggest victim was himself.

What an indictment of the Stones organization and the whole rock music business that the film reveals not one person in all that milieu who ever tried to be a real friend to Jones and help wean him off drink and drugs or convince him he had value independent of being a pop idol. As an aunt of mine once said of a cousin devoted to a destructive lifestyle that would likewise sentence him to a premature death, “Well, I think he needs a good, strong dose of religion.” As naïve as it may be to think Brian Jones could have been so cured, he clearly seems to have been far too fragile, psychologically and physically, to cope with the pressures of being a major celebrity.

A final feather in Broomfield’s cap is that his film prompts so many questions about not just Jones but everyone we have ever known who struggled as he did. More than being a warning about the perils of an utterly undisciplined life, may The Stones and Brian Jones inspire us to be far more proactive in not just spotting troubled souls but reaching out to help them. For all the interviewees moaning about how crushing it was for poor Brian to be fired from the Rolling Stones, the documentary demonstrates that, no matter how much fame, fortune, or professional success one attains, they are truly trivial next to living an emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy life – and that is no minor cinematic feat.

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