Longtime producer Stephen Woolley’s helming debut “Stoned” mines the story of Rolling Stones co-founder Brian Jones for a note-perfect pastiche of Swingin’ ’60s style, but is less satisfying in other departments. Look of the pic — from false eyelashes to period film stock — is a nostalgia trip for Boomer and retro-loving auds. But the film’s sputtering dramatic engine, underwhelming perfs, and absence of music by the Stones themselves may leave the key younger demographic wondering what all the fuss is about. Canny marketing will be needed to paint pic’s B.O. figures black, with best results to be expected in Blighty.
Like Iain Softley’s portrait of onetime Beatles bassist Stu Sutcliffe in “Backbeat” (1994), which Woolley produced and co-penned, “Stoned” focuses on a late member from the early days of a nascent supergroup. Based on assorted non-fiction accounts of Jones’ life and death, script by scribes Robert Wade and Neal Purvis (“The World Is Not Enough,” “Die Another Day”) has been reportedly in development for 10 years — longer, in fact, than Jones was a member of the Rolling Stones.
In classic “Sunset Blvd.” fashion, pic starts with a corpse in a pool and then unfolds through a mosaic of jumbled flashbacks. By the time of his “death by misadventure” in a swimming pool in 1969, Brian Jones (Leo Gregory) had already been sacked from the band he formed with pals Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, as his prodigious drug abuse prevented him from touring the U.S. (or even staying awake in the studio).
Bulk of the plot observes the weeks leading up to the fatal moment, as Jones lolls around his English country manse — once owned by “Winnie the Pooh” author A.A. Milne — occasionally shags his Swedish g.f., Anna (Tuva Novotny), and generally feels sorry for himself.
The Stones’ manager, Tom Keylock (David Morrissey), hires Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine), a one-eyed working-class WWII vet with square edges, nominally to do some work on the dilapidated house but really to “keep an eye” on the musician. (There’s a suggestion Thorogood and Keylock are in cahoots to embezzle funds from the band, much to the chagrin of the Stones’ accountant, a pithy turn by TV comic David Walliams.)
Before long, Thorogood has become Jones’ cook, minder and drug buddy, as well as the object of head games for which the slightly sadistic Jones has a penchant. More important, based on a supposed death-bed confession years later, pic argues that Thorogood was also Jones’ second-degree murderer. Unfortunately, the script is frustratingly hazy about what motivated the worm to turn beyond drug abuse and bad karma.
If this core relationship sounds a lot like Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s 1970 cult classic, “Performance,” that’s because the Jones-Thorogood relationship partly inspired the latter film, and especially Jagger’s Jones-like perf as the manipulative, hedonistic Turner. Meanwhile, “Performance” co-star Anita Pallenberg, who in real life dated Jones before dumping him for Keith Richards, features as a major character (played by the voluptuous Monet Mazur) in the flashbacks of “Stoned.”
Bringing the game of reference full circle, helmer Woolley plants numerous visual allusions to “Performance,” as well as a host of other ’60s pics, such as “Blow Up,” “The Trip,” and even, in tiny touches, Brit pics like Richard Lester’s “The Knack … and How to Get It.” It’s very much a film buff’s idea of period, although an occasional ahistorical note is hit in the dialogue, as when Jones in flashback describes himself as the Stones’ “spokesperson” instead of “spokesman.”
Although their shadows loom large, onscreen Jagger and Richards remain peripheral to the drama, seen literally in the background in many flashbacks to the early days when the group was known as “The Rollin’ Stones.” Reticence might be for legal reasons, although the portrayal of Mick and Keith is fairly flattering. Richards (Ben Whishaw) gets to act the hero when he rescues Pallenberg from a physically abusive Jones, while Jagger (Luke De Woolfson, only just imitating the famous drawling voice) comes off an already shrewd businessman who briskly agrees it would be best if Jones and the band part company.
Ultimately, however, the pic feels almost ossified by its attention to detail. Despite exuberant display of drug abuse and unselfconscious nudity by both sexes — the men go full frontal here, and the pic is frank about Jones’ bisexuality — there’s something too studied about the film’s “let it all hang out” vibe. Crucially, the narrative focus is soft on the central relationship between Jones and Thorogood that creates the abrupt onrush of the last act.
Lack of budget–and perhaps of cooperation from the surviving Stones–takes a painful toll on pic’s soundtrack, with contributions from the band limited to a couple of passable covers by The Counterfeit Stones of songs the group didn’t write (“Little Red Rooster” and “Love In Vain”). Otherwise, songs by 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson play in the background at Jones’ house, smartly emphasizing band’s rhythm and blues roots. Covers by hip new things like The Bees and the White Stripes, sometimes heard only in snatches, will capably fill up an inevitable soundtrack album, although use of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” as backing for the first time Jones tries acid with Pallenberg is perhaps a little too on the nose.
Perfs lack the sharp edges needed to hold attention. Gregory, so good in a minor role in recent Brit film “Green Street” (aka “Hooligans”), doesn’t quite muster the charisma required here to make viewers care for the too-easily dislikable Jones. Often the best thing in lesser movies, Considine is just OK here as the enigmatic Thorogood. At least actresses Novotny, Amelia Warner and Mazur in particular, shine in more sketchily written parts, and considerably amp up the pic’s sex appeal.
Lensing by d.p. John Mathieson uses a selection pack of stocks (reversal, 16mm shot on Bolex cameras, Super8 and so on) from the era to recreate grainy, low-lit atmosphere. Pic’s general visual texture is spot on.
Slightly clunky editing and over-emphatic non-source score similarly would seem to be efforts toward pastiche. Likewise, costumes, make-up and set design precisely render both the boho world of Jones, the working-class one of Thorogood, and all the realms in between.