By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006
Its title may ring with pun and promise, but "Stoned" is a flat riff on the short life of Brian Jones, the Rolling Stone who died in his swimming pool on July 3, 1969.
Based on three books about Jones's life (and the supposed 1993 deathbed confession of a household workman), the movie fails to evoke his tragic and colorful history. You'll get the highlights of Jones's life but no sense of what made him special -- or what really haunted him.
For debuting director Stephen Woolley, a longtime producer for Neil Jordan, this is a grand opportunity missed. In his heyday, Jones, of course, was the Stone to Watch, the Carnaby Street mod who kissed the girls and made them pregnant. A brilliant musician who played piano, clarinet, saxophone, guitar, even the dulcimer, he put the bluesy scratch and otherworldly mojo into Stones tunes. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, in the beginning at least, had to share in the limelight.
The sitar in "Paint It Black"? The cuckoolike recorder in "Ruby Tuesday"? All Brian Jones. But for all his brilliance, he was a screw-up -- and drugged up. He passed out at studio sessions, when he showed up at all. He was forbidden to tour the United States because of his drug arrests. He was AWOL, literally and figuratively. It was just a matter of time before they found him floating. He was 27.
Unfortunately, the deepest insight offered by "Stoned" is that Jones (played by Leo Gregory) made a terrible boss. The story centers on Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine), a building contractor, who's intrigued to be hired by the flamboyant pop icon. Brian lives in a state of constant bacchanalia in his Sussex farmhouse -- once owned by "Winnie the Pooh" author A.A. Milne. Blondes come and go. Grass, cocaine and booze are freely available. And Brian, who welcomes Frank with childlike joy, seems to want to be his friend.
The job description, Frank rapidly discovers, involves more than building garden walls. He finds himself cooking for Brian, driving him to London to pick up girls, and keeping him company when the women are gone. It's fun for a time, but it becomes increasingly edgy. On one occasion, Brian -- always one for mind games -- offers Frank sex with one of his girlfriends if the builder performs 100 push-ups. He orders Frank's crew to dismantle and move a wall they've just built, then tells them to put it back in the original spot. As Brian's relationship with his band deteriorates, so does the bond between him and Frank.
Scripted by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (whose résumés include three James Bond films), the film succumbs all too often to cliche: the drug-woozy sequences of hedonistic romps in bed and LSD tabs on yanked-out tongues (cue Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit"). What these scenes tell us about Jones, other than the external lore of his life, is anyone's guess. If this was all there was to him, why are we watching this?
The movie is no more enlightening about the relationships in Jones's life. His girlfriend Anita Pallenberg (Monet Mazur), who befriends him at a Munich concert in the early 1960s, follows him to Sussex and Marrakech, and plays bondage games upstairs, is supposed to be a significant figure. But we never understand what draws them together. We know what pulls them apart, though. (He starts to hit her a little harder and she doesn't like that -- there's your character growth.) His romance, if that's what you call it, with Anna Wohlin (whose book "The Murder of Brian Jones" is another sourcebook) is even less revelatory.
As for Mick and Keith, they're relegated to the periphery. Played by Luke de Woolfson (Jagger) and Ben Whishaw (Richards), they're reduced to background roles. We see them cooling heels while Brian makes a phone call. There they are again, sitting in a cloud of hookah smoke in Morocco. Occasionally, they speak! Watching this movie, you could be forgiven for thinking they were just the roadies.
Woolley has said in interviews he wanted to make a Brian Jones film, so he did not seek participation or cooperation from the Rolling Stones. Nor, he said, did he license their 1960s-era songs -- for which Jones wasn't credited -- so the few Stones tunes on the soundtrack were recorded by other artists.
British actor Gregory certainly looks the part -- and vamps it up with aplomb. But the screenplay never allows him to be more than one-dimensional. (There's got to be a part for him in the next Austin Powers flick.) Considine, who has shown such versatility in films including "In America," "My Summer of Love" and "Cinderella Man," finds new chords again. As Frank, he's a convincingly tormented outsider, who evolves from enchantment to gloomy disillusionment. But as the only believable person (with the exception of David Morrissey, as Brian's cocky driver and troubleshooter) he's faced with a peculiar conundrum: Among these Rolling Stones, what's the point of gathering moss?
Stoned (103 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated; it contains nudity, drug use and profanity.