In the weeks before the release of The Stones and Brian Jones, Nick Broomfield’s documentary about the first casualty of the Rolling Stones’ rise to prominence, the band released its 24th (in the UK; 26th in the US) studio album. And as part of the release of Hackney Diamonds, the band’s first studio release in seven years, the Stones’ PR machine went into overdrive. Mick Jagger and Keith Richard made the rounds and, among other topics, often touched on the death of longtime drummer Charlie Watts and its impact on the band. These interviews have tended to be fascinating affairs; such is the state of things when members of rock royalty hit the promotion trail.
One name that was barely mentioned is Brian Jones. That is not altogether surprising; even though Jones was the band’s founder and its first leader, he died more than 50 years ago. But as British documentarian Broomfield explains in The Stones and Brian Jones, “Brian then was as popular as Mick. He was the heart and soul of the Rolling Stones. Yet, most people today haven’t even heard of him.”
Much of what people do remember about Jones in 2023 has to do with the mysterious circumstances of his passing. Come upon an article with a title like “the 10 strangest unsolved mysteries in music history” and there is a good chance one of the entries will be devoted to Jones’ drowning in 1969. To his credit––and unlike 1998’s Kurt & Courtney––Broomfield is uninterested in conspiracy theories. Rather, The Stones and Brian Jones is focused on what made Jones a complex, troubled genius, and how he was destined to be excised from history in order for the Rolling Stones to become The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band™. “If anyone was gonna die, Brian was gonna die,” states Jagger in a clip near the film’s end. “He just lived his life very fast. He was kind of like a butterfly.”
“Brian’s own life mirrored the rebellious spirit of the stones more than any other member,” Broomfield explains in his narration. “Expelled from two schools. Thrown out of his home. A reckless personal life. The blues was Brian’s salvation.” Jones’ path––from a disappointment for his straight-laced parents to a blues obsessive whose band (named after a Muddy Waters song) came to represent ’60s youth culture’s break from authority––has certainly been covered in rock biographies, and even a substandard biopic (2005’s Stoned). Though Broomfield’s self-narrated style, heavy with clips and augmented with some compelling new interviews (chief among them former Stones bassist Bill Wyman) is ideal for capturing the life of a long-deceased figure whose impact still reverberates.
Indeed, Broomfield has created the definitive documentary on the early days of the Rolling Stones; even more crucially, he has shown both how the Stones became THE STONES and the cost of that success. It opens with a quote from author Stanley Booth: “Brian was a casualty of the war between two generations.” Broomfield demonstrates that Jones was not blameless in his fate, however. At various points he is described as “full of self-loathing,” a person who “did everything to excess,” and less and less dependable as the Stones gained success. “He was supposed to be the leader, and he’s no longer the leader,” says one of his old girlfriends. “Mick ruled the roost as far as what they were gonna play, and the fact that he could read music and Brian couldn’t. I think there may have been a little jealousy there.” Jones was more overtly pretty than Jagger––note that Jones had fathered five children by his early 20s––but lacked the frontman’s inherent front-of-stage charisma.
Yet Broomfield also captures Jones’ brilliance, and the key role he played in some of the band’s greatest songs. I consider myself a rather hardcore Stones fan, but I did not know the iconic flute in “Ruby Tuesday” was all Brian. “He’d pick up a flute and create something out of it,” says Wyman, while also crediting Jones with the sitar that added an undercurrent of mystical dread to “Paint It Black.” These are a few of the anecdotes to linger for Stones fans. Consider director Volker Schlöndorff’s account of “It Girl” and erstwhile Jones girlfriend Anita Pallenberg arriving at the Cannes Film Festival “with Brian and a couple of days later” leaving with Keith. (“That was kind of was the final nail in the coffin between me and Brian,” Richards says. “He’d never forgive me for that and I don’t blame him.”) The incestuous world of Stones flings could make for its own documentary, actually.
The final days of Brian Jones are dealt with a bit too quickly––again, do not look for too much time spent on the manner of his death. Broomfield instead uses some archival audio of Jones’ bandmates that are somewhat shocking in their candor. “He got much nicer just before he died,” says Watts. “You know, the last few years of his life, I felt even sorrier for him for what we did to him then. We took his one thing away, which was being in a band.” I’m not sure the Stones were wrong in their actions with Jones, but who can say? He was a complex individual; they were and are a complex band. Thanks to The Stones and Brian Jones, the titans of rock seem––finally––human. And while Brian Jones is long-gone, his legacy seems greater and his influence more alive than ever. Just don’t look for much evidence on Hackney Diamonds.
The Stones and Brian Jones is in theaters for one night on November 7, followed by a digital release on November 17.