Thursday, March 30, 2006

Stoned: Real-Life Rock ’n’ roll Sunset Boulevard

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“Stoned” was the title of one of the rarest recordings by the Rolling Stones, the B-side of their 1963 single of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man.” In what was otherwise a blues instrumental, Mick Jagger rapped a series of interjections — “Stoned,” “Out of my mind,” “Where am I at?” — to depict the mood celebrated in the song’s title. Stoned is also the title of a 2005 movie about the last three months in the life of the group’s original guitarist and (at least according to the film’s script) founder, Brian Jones, who ran through more money, screwed more women and did more drugs than the rest of them and burned himself out into an early grave, dead at age 27 from a late-night swim in the pool of his English country mansion, formerly owned by Winnie the Pooh creator A. A. Milne.

“Before Jimi and Janis, there was Brian,” reads the advertising slogan for Stoned. Actually, Brian Jones wasn’t the first of the 1960’s generation of rock stars to die — that dubious honor belonged to Alan Wilson, hardly as major a name but one whose peculiarly whiny voice had propelled his band, Canned Heat, to the two biggest hits it ever had (“On the Road Again” and “Going Up the Country”) — but he was part of a supergroup, which Wilson wasn’t. Still, his death didn’t have the impact of Jimi Hendrix’s or Janis Joplin’s because he hadn’t been a star in his own right; the band he was in was one of the most important in rock history, but his role had been to add color — from bottleneck blues guitar to East Indian sitar — to the basic voice-guitar-bass-drums lineup of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. In fact, Jones was sufficiently dispensable that the Rolling Stones went right on without him — and indeed are still a going concern, though largely a nostalgia act sucking off the great work they did in the 1960’s when Jones was still alive and contributing.

Stoned, the movie, may or may not be historically accurate, but on its own it stands as a powerful, if all too familiar, tale of a doomed rock star in his last days. What isn’t apparent from the advertising is how closely it follows the faded-star trope of the 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, from director Stephen Woolley cribbing Billy Wilder’s famous opening shot of a corpse floating in a swimming pool shot from below to the bizarre relationship of Jones (Leo Gregory) and Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine), a married 40-something contractor who enters Jones’s world to remodel his house and ends up his unpaid servant, go-fer, drinking and drugging companion, and ultimately — at least according to one possible reading of Jones’s final days — his killer.

The relationship between Jones and Thorogood is by far the most interesting aspect of this movie. At times Jones seems too continually spaced out to be capable of doing much of anything, but at other times he comes across as a master manipulator, continuing his weird platonic (or maybe not so platonic) seduction of the hapless builder, taking him for a walk on the proverbial wild side and showing him — and us — just how thin the line is between self-definition and self-indulgence. The ultimate cruelty is that Brian Jones’s rambunctious, self-destructive lifestyle emerges as a temptation the rest of us are protected from only because we don’t have the money and leisure to pursue it.

Nor do we have the support structure of people like Tom Keylock (David Morrissey), who gets Frank the gig of remodeling Jones’s house and in some respects comes off as the film’s most repulsive character: a straight-arrow himself (as shown by his short hair, business dress and glasses), he’s not above skimming from the Stones’ till or helping himself to their leftover groupies. People like Tom exist because people like the Stones have enormous earning power, not only for themselves but even more so for the businesspeople who sign them to management contracts and record deals, and the creative artists who lay the golden eggs have to be kept, coddled and given enough protection from their follies so they continue to produce the work from which others make more money than they do.

Stoned intersperses its main plot — Brian Jones’s progressive disintegration, his shock when the other Stones fire him, and his final end — with flashback sequences, directed by Woolley in flamboyant neo-psychedelic style. These depict Jones in 1959, dancing merrily away from the family crisis he caused by getting a 14-year-old girl pregnant (“You want to add murder to molestation?” his father angrily says when Brian drops a hint that they should get a doctor to “take care” of the problem); in 1963, posing as the Stones’ manager to get them a last-minute gig as a substitute opening act; in 1965 in Germany, meeting Anita Pallenberg (Monet Mazur), who’d become first his and Keith Richards’s girlfriend and who would give him his first dose of LSD; and in 1967 in Morocco, where he ostensibly went to produce a recording of the Master Musicians of Jajouka, an indigenous ensemble (a bit of their eerie, powerful music is heard in the film), but actually spent most of his time smoking the world’s strongest hashish.

What we don’t see — and it’s a weakness of the film — is Brian Jones ever functioning as a creative musician. We see one of the Stones’ early performances (doing a cover of Willie Dixon’s blues classic, “Little Red Rooster”) and watch Jones playing the bottleneck guitar part originated by Hubert Sumlin on Howlin’ Wolf’s record of the song (most people don’t realize that the Rolling Stones started playing nothing but covers of African-American blues records, and even got their name from a song by Muddy Waters); we see him do a blues jam for the soundtrack of a Pallenberg film; and late in the story we see Jones place an electronic keyboard at the bottom of his then-empty pool and try to get Thorogood to accompany him on gourd. But we don’t get any sense of what Brian Jones actually contributed to the Stones’ style or sound, and in the most notable error in the Neal Purvis/Robert Wade script we hear Mick Jagger (Luke de Woolfson) tell Jones that one of the reasons they’re throwing him out of the band is because he isn’t writing any songs. The real Brian Jones wrote quite a few songs but was unable to get any of them recorded; Mick and Keith wanted to keep the songwriting (and the extra royalties from it) all to themselves.

Though watching Stoned sometimes seems like sitting through a train wreck in slow motion for 105 minutes, the movie is fascinating and haunting. Leo Gregory bears no more than a superficial resemblance to the real Brian Jones, but he’s physically right for the part anyway, with his big Cheshire-cat grin of a mouth and his puffy, jowly face excellently representing a man who’s drunk and drugged himself into a premature state of old age at 27. His performance is at its best in the little moments; his smile of satisfaction when the woman he’s asked for starts going down on him and the sensation wakes him from his half-asleep stupor; his look of panic when the drugs temporarily wear off, he’s unable to get more immediately, and he sucks on some sort of inhaler to get something mood-altering into his system rather than risk even a moment of not being high.

Paddy Considine, so fine as the harried father in Jim Sheridan’s immigration drama In America, is equally good here as the sort of everyman thrust into Brian Jones’s unimaginable lifestyle. The women — reflecting the relentless sexism of the rock-star culture — are far less well drawn as characters as the men; Monet Mazur as Anita Pallenberg is the only female cast member who gets to play even a hint of complexity. Overall, the film is moody and dark but not dull; it’s gripping drama even though there’s a kind of sick fascination in watching a spoiled brat destroy himself while everyone around him is helpless either because they’re partying along with him or he won’t listen to them. Maybe the dying-rock-star biopic has become a genre of its own — Gus van Sant even did one on Kurt Cobain — but at least Stoned is a good one, which transcends the usual rock-movie clichés to become a valid and surprisingly moving, though depressing, drama.

Stoned plays from Friday, March 31 through Thursday, April 6 at the Ken Cinema, 4061 Adams Avenue in Kensington. Please call (619) 819-0236 for showtimes and other information.