Almost any movie that explores the life of a musician is hot in Hollywood these days. But where Ray and Walk the Line produced Academy Award-winning performances, Stoned focuses on the last event in Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones’ life—his death, of course. Although the authorities ruled Jones’ drowning death “accidental,” this movie picks up on the rumor that he was murdered by Frank Thorogood (here played by Paddy Considine), a builder hired to work on Jones’ house.
Brian Jones (Leo Gregory) is the forgotten Stone. Even schoolchildren can describe Mick Jagger’s big lips, and most folks assume Keith Richards is an unpaid spokesperson for Jack Daniels. But only diehard Stones fans appreciate Jones’ contribution to the band’s groundbreaking music of the 1960s. He’s the one, for instance, credited with introducing sitar and other Eastern sounds into the Stones’ otherwise straightforward blues mix. But if you’re looking for this Brian Jones, you won’t find him in Stoned.
It opens with a recreation of an early club performance by the Stones (shot in black and white, to remind us all that the scene is really old). Jones convinces the club owner to give the Stones a gig after the scheduled band fails to show up, suggesting he’s a focused, professional musician. This moment contrasts with the film’s portrayal of his later dissipation, though to what point is unclear.
In this futility, Stoned might be compared to Oliver Stone’s The Doors, which focused on Jim Morrison’s (Val Kilmer) chemical and sexual excesses at the expense of exploring his music. Similarly, Jones appears to be diligently practicing infidelity and abusing alcohol throughout, though the film doesn’t explore how or why he might have turned to such self-abuse: was he hoping to enhance his creativity? Was he trying to forget his past?
It’s tough to feel pain over Jones’ death, in part because Stoned doesn’t convince us that he was a great musician or even a particularly compelling personality. Neither does it reveal much detail about his relationships with Keith (Ben Whishaw) and Mick (Luke De Woolfson). Instead, the movie focuses on the murder story. In one scene, Jones humiliates Thorogood by offering up his girlfriend for a night of sex, then never delivering. This was a cruel act, no doubt, but hardly the stuff that leads a man to such overwhelming violence.
After the Stones sack Jones, Thorogood has trouble getting paid for his completed work. To add insult to injury, Jones ultimately fires Thorogood, claiming dissatisfaction with his work. While Jones certainly should have paid Thorogood, this sin of omission doesn’t create a financial crisis for the builder. People commit crimes of passion because others sleep with their mates, or because their victims know secrets that only good, bloody killings can squelch. But none of Jones’ actions toward Thorogood seem to prompt such a dramatic retaliation.
At the same time, Stoned doesn’t offer insight into the murderer. And so it becomes a film without a protagonist, more attentive to the familiar recreation of an already clichéd “era” than to characters, whether original or historical.