The Rolling Stones’ founder Brian Jones’ drowning death in 1969 is another check mark in that long list of rock ‘n’ roll artists who died early and in their prime. His legacy as a musical genius aside, Jones is also remembered for his sartorial flamboyance and for his quintessential rocker’s lifestyle of drugs, booze, and sex, all in big gulps.
It’s at the shit end of excess that we find Jones (Leo Gregory) in Stephen Woolley’s directorial debut, Stoned, which explores the rocker’s final days, after he’s alienated himself from his band, leading up to his mysterious drowning in the swimming pool of his country estate. Officially, the death was ruled an accident, but loose ends linger off the record, particularly with regard to Jones’s relationship with Stones’ manager, Tom Keylock (David Morrissey), and Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine), a builder contracted to remodel Jones’s estate. Woolley’s movie runs on the notion that Thorogood was no mere working-class lackey, but a mole of sorts, employed by the Stones organization to keep daily tabs on Jones’s erratic behavior.
To Frank, Jones is an exotic figure — possessed of rare artistic talent, unfettered in his pursuit of sexual, narcotic, and alcoholic pleasures. Slowly, the humble builder’s inhibitions chip away, replaced by a deep desire to sample Jones’s drugs, his women, to partake in his creative process. On hand is Jones’s current flame, Anna Wohlin (Tuva Novotny), an enticing blonde, who drifts on and off the estate to cater to Jones’s needs, and stir Frank’s pot now and again.
In Woolley’s treatment, it’s Jones’s obsession with former girlfriend Anita Pallenberg (Monet Mazur) more than anything that spirals him deeper downward into self-destruction. Anita becomes something of a litmus test for Jones: his adoration of her, complicated by his jealousy after her dumping him for Keith Richards, clashed with his self-styled notions of sexual liberation. Much of the couple’s tensions play out in a short holiday sequence set in Morocco in which Woolley and cinematographer John Mathieson cleverly inject the drama with stark, sunburned hues that offer no shade and no forgiveness.
Writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade juxtapose Frank’s descent into Jones’s inner circle with flashback vignettes of the rocker’s heady days. As Jones and his bands’ career takes off and orgiastic pleasures abound, Woolley can’t resist lensing all of it with psychedelic candy colors, quick cuts, flash frames, laid over with ’60s-flavored covers of the rock and R&B tunes — Robert Johnson and Jefferson Airplane, most notably — that Jones loved. Like all nostalgic riffs on ’60s bohemia, this smacks too hard of Midnight Cowboy and Blow-Up. Still, it’s an irresistibly fun effect, and, in a scene set in a packed Munich auditorium as the Stones wind down a riotous gig, it’s exhilarating to take in the unhinged quality of the grainy stock and newsreel-like camerawork.
Its sharp sense of style aside, what trips up Stoned is the fumbling psychodrama between Frank and Jones. Woolley can’t get inside Jones’s headspace to render a full-blooded characterization of the volatile man behind the myth. Instead, he manages a series of hyper-stylized, dramatically incoherent snapshots of Jones in interchangeable states of anger, madness, and dissipation. That scattered approach to character reduces Gregory to flouncing around in a dressing gown, simpering vacantly, and leaves Considine’s Frank to suffer a similar fate. Without a compelling Jones, Frank’s fixation on him, tinged with class resentments and latent homoeroticism, never parses out neatly; his self-loathing confuses more than frightens. Ultimately, any sense of tragedy following Frank and Jones’s wet, grim finale feels painfully false, even amidst the surging music that Woolley floods the sequence with. As the credits roll, we find we’ve drowned in Woolley’s pool long before Jones has.
Don’t call me Nico.