Friday, 7 May 2010

Stoney Endgame (Brian Jones)

Talking of music biopics, here's one which is resolutely non-doo wop but of particular interest to me, as it dramatises the last days of ex-Rolling Stone Brian Jones. I don't think there was a critical consensus about this film's merits but I was fascinated by it as I had laboured unsuccessfully some years before to create a coherent stage play linking Brian Jones with AA Milne.

Jones had bought what had been Milne's home (he died in 1956) as part of his attempt to get-it-together-in-the-country after a series of drugs busts and troubles with his personal and professional relationships with the other Stones; he famously drowned in the pool which I think had been added by the American couple who had owned the place in the interim.

The play failed overall, probably because I was never able to get a real sense of who Jones was, nor to bring out any connection between the two men which seemed more than "an accident of geography" as one literary manager rather devastatingly put it: a painful lesson that if a play doesn't have a shape then ultimately dialogue counts for nothing. Whether that experience should make me particularly well qualified to pass judgement on the film or debar me from comment, my review, which has already appeared on a well-known shopping website, follows. I have come unstuck in the past when trying to update reviews on the hoof, so will add further thoughts separately.

Stoned is an intelligent and witty take on Brian Jones's final days, whether or not it's the last word on the mystery of his drowning. Published accounts contain contradictory details, and ex-Stones employee Tom Keylock, consultant on the film, may have his own particular spin, but Stephen Woolley and scriptwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have fashioned a coherent and logical story out of the available material:
if his death didn't come about as suggested here, it makes sense in the context of the film.

The growing interdependence of Jones and Frank Thorogood, hired to do up the Sussex farmhouse where Jones hoped to kickstart his creativity, drives the narrative; Leo Gregory, as the seductive, exasperating rock
star, and Paddy Considine, the baffled but intrigued builder, are compelling in a relationship which alludes both to Joseph Losey's 60s film The Servant (scripted by Pinter) and, appropriately enough, Performance, in which Mick Jagger played a dissolute rock star with echoes of Jones.

The mindgames with Frank are interspersed with flashbacks from Brian's point of view, allowing us to see key moments in the breakdown of his relationship with Anita Pallenberg (the one woman whose loss seems to
have mattered), and glimpses of his slipping status in the group he once led, without sacrificing the immediacy of the central conflict. This device also creates a much-needed degree of sympathy, his constant need to pick over his past suggesting just how damaged Jones has become by this stage - it doesn't make him any more likeable, but it does explain his need to lash out at someone else for distraction.

 That said, while Stoned doesn't purport to be a conventional biopic - the last days, not the whole life - I wondered whether there might be too much shorthand for an audience not familiar with this star who died in the 60s. The director's commentary clarifies matters but details can whizz by in the actual viewing. It feels right that the focus is not on Jagger and Richards - this is not the Rolling Stones story - but is the brief (though powerful) scene with Brian's family enough to suggest everything in early life which shaped the man now messing with Frank's head?

I also wondered whether the character of Frank was treated too gently. The biographies suggest that Jones was more scared of him than is implied here: for almost the entire film, in fact, Brian is more Frank's tormentor (and pretend-buddy) than victim. Similarly, the extent of Jones's continuing music-making seems downplayed, a bit of inconclusive jamming with Frank the only indication of any hope for his creative future. But this isn't a documentary, and these decisions serve to intensify the bleakness of the scenario, locking the two main characters into what might be termed a Stoney Endgame.

The story's dictates may also be why we see little indication of the man capable (according to Bill Wyman's Stone Alone) of being gently supportive of Suki Potier after the death of her boyfriend Tara Browne or of spending a final, untroubled day with his parents. And it has to be said that despite the coup of persuading Janet Lawson, the nurse present on the last night, to speak she, like Brian's girlfriend Anna Wohlin, is strangely characterless in the film. But then that also seems the case in the biographies, even Wohlin's own, and this is finally a film about two men - and the absence of one woman (Pallenberg).

Essentially, Stoned succeeds in making an unwieldy amount of information into a playful, inventive - and touching - story. Whether or not it's the whole truth, it has its own truth, and there are undoubted insights along the way into the psyche of "this fragile monster," as Keith Richards once described his former bandmate. 
Since that review was written, both Tom Keylock and Janet Lawson have died (Frank Thorogood had died in 1993). Talking to a Daily Mail reporter in 2008 (see the article here) Lawson accuses the police of trying to put words in her mouth when she was exhausted in the early hours of the morning, saying she expected to be allowed to make a clearer statement at a later time. She didn't witness the killing but notes some suspicious details about Frank Thorogood's behaviour around that time and thinks it was "probably the result of horseplay that had got out of hand" (the journalist's paraphrase). Tom Keylock, Lawson's boyfriend at the time (and the Stones' Mr Fixit) was alive at the time of the Mail's investigation but declined to comment.

I think Frank Thorogood is the one most often fingered, but the reasons for a cover up - if that is indeed what happened - do seem unclear. There is a great deal of material on the web if you want to investigate this; I have been less inclined to do so, having given up the play, so forgive me if I don't make specific recommmendations. Anna Wohlin, Jones's girlfriend at the time, disappeared from sight but eventually wrote a book which didn't substantially add to what was already out there - most notably Terry Rawlings' Who Killed Christopher Robin? - nor provide enough material to make her relationship with Jones feel real - or maybe I'm just saying that my wish to put these two people (Jones and Milne) together, my love for the neatness of that idea, wasn't matched by an equal interest in whatever drove those two characters. And the Wohlin book was in any case too late for me, as my play effectively ceased to have any life after sending out a version to theatres in the summer of 1997. An earlier version did get a rehearsed reading and a recording survives of that which I may try to put up in this entry eventually. I have been told that there are good sections of dialogue. But a writing guru (not the literary manager cited earlier) identified the problem which I never solved: my play, he said, was like this - he sketched an oval -  when it should have been like this - he drew an arrow.

It still haunts me, and I can't help wondering whether ... mmm ... a monologue? But the bottom line is if I was asked to sum it up in a sentence or two I couldn't do so and until I can it's testament to the folly of putting lots of effort into exterior decoration when the building's foundations have not yet been attended to.

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