Even for obsessive Rolling Stones fans, the story of founding guitarist Brian Jones’ death nearly 51 years ago has been so clouded with misinformation, controversy and battling agendas that at a certain point one just gives up wondering. An asthmatic with a long history of substance abuse, he drowned in the pool of his lovely home on July 3, 1969, at the age of 27 — just weeks after being ejected from the Stones. While his death was officially ruled misadventure by the coroner, there is little clarity about who was present at the time, what their motives were, and where exactly he drowned.
While “Rolling Stone: Life and Death of Brian Jones” repeats much well-established information — and was clearly made without the cooperation of the Stones’ organization — it goes a long way toward clarifying the incident and presents reasonably convincing evidence that Jones was, if not murdered, then killed in an incident of manslaughter. While no bandmembers appear in the documentary, the filmmakers have done a solid job of presenting the accounts of many overlooked people who were close to Jones and the group during the 1960s —tour manager Sam Cutler, journalist Keith Altham, Jones’ ex-girlfriend ZouZou (Danièle Ciarlet), photographer Gered Mankowitz, friend Stanislaus “Stash” Klossowski De Rola and Pretty Things members Dick Taylor and Phil May, the latter of whom died earlier this year — and present genuinely new accounts to well-traveled topics.
The film argues that Jones’ killer was a man named Frank Thorogood, who ostensibly had been working on renovations on the guitarist’s home, although “freeloading” is apparently a more accurate term for what he and his associates were doing. According to one third-hand account, Thorogood confessed on his deathbed to killing Jones.
However, the 90-minute-long doc does take its time getting there, spending the first hour on familiar stories of Jones’ childhood, his crucial role in the band’s formation, its rise and its early success — he was the uncontested leader during the Stones’ early years — his charisma, insecurity, substance abuse, promiscuity and indisputably selfish, vengeful and often physically abusive behavior. Early on, he arranged to be paid more than the other bandmembers, for which they never forgave him; at the time of his death, he had fathered six children with six different women. His monumental insecurity only increased as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards — whom the group’s early manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, presciently pegged as budding songwriters — quickly eclipsed him as the group’s focal points and leaders.
“Tortured soul, out of balance, cracked, vulnerable, manipulative, devilish,” are among the many descriptions for him by the people listed above. Bob Dylan famously greeted Jones — with whom he was friends, and who purportedly wrote the song “Ballad of a Thin Man” about him — by saying, “Hi Brian, how’s your paranoia?”
However, several subjects note that as his behavior and health declined, “There was quite a lot of nastiness toward Brian” from his fellow Stones. The last straw came in 1967 when, after Jones fell ill while on vacation with his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg and Richards, the pair not only abandoned him and ran off together — they would remain a couple for the next 20 years — they left him with the hotel bill.
After that, his decline was rapid: “He changed suddenly, and alarmingly,” his father said in a taped interview from the 1970s. He was busted for drugs twice by a famously corrupt London police officer (the second time was almost unquestionably a set-up), which only exacerbated his ill health, substance abuse, insecurity and paranoia. He turned up for recording sessions inebriated, incoherent and unable to play, as his musical contributions to the group declined dramatically in the second half of the ‘60s. His drug record would have made it impossible for him to tour the U.S. with the Stones, but that was just one reason he was asked to leave the group in May of 1969. Less than six weeks later, he was dead.
This documentary finds its groove as it sifts through the evidence surrounding Jones’ death, driven largely by journalist Scott Jones, who unsuccessfully attempted to have the investigation into the guitarist’s death reopened in 2010. Along with Thorogood, the incident centers around an underworld character associated with the Stones named Tom Keylock, and various theories are posited that he and Thorogood’s construction associates were “leaching” off of Jones until he fired them — and the next day, he died. The film assembles a theory that around a dozen people were at the house on the night of Jones’ death — some of whom were Thorogood and associates, who were still hanging around even though they had been fired — and that Jones and Thorogood got into a fierce argument. That argument, they posit, ended with Thorogood holding Jones’ head underwater in a trough on the property until he drowned. They argue that Jones’ body was moved to the pool, where his asthma inhaler was found after his death. Many of Jones’ possessions subsequently — and mysteriously — vanished from the house after his death, with Keylock, who died in 2009, posited as the culprit.
While it covers much well-traveled ground, “Life and Death of Brian Jones” also presents a solid case for its theories, and also shows excellent research along with rare video footage, photos and interviews with many people whose stories the filmmakers were wise to document (after all, none of us are getting any younger). It also presents a realistic portrait of Jones himself, whose insecurity, cruelty and substance abuse ultimately overpowered his talent, charm and charisma.
“He was a wonderful person, somewhere,” says his ex-girlfriend Ciarlet, in heavily accented English. “He was a piece of sh–, too.”