"Brian Jones was a very complicated character," explains filmmaker Nick Broomfield. "He came from a very middle-class background. In a sense, he had everything going for him even before he formed The Rolling Stones."
Broomfield is behind some of this generation's most incisive and provocative documentaries, including cinematic studies of pop culture icons and public figures likes Kurt Cobain, Whitney Houston, Leonard Cohen, and Tupac Shakur. His latest film, The Stones and Brian Jones, is no different.
Using a combination of previously unseen footage, candid interviews, and Broomfield's own narration, the documentary looks back at the rise of The Rolling Stones and the tragic fate of the titular founding member. In 1962, it was Jones who placed the classified ad in Jazz News that ultimately brought together Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman. In 1969, less than a month after being kicked out of the band, Jones died at age 27.
"It felt like he was constantly looking for another family. That's not how you immediately think of making a film about a wild, crazy, anarchistic rock band," Broomfield, who directed, produced and co-wrote The Stones and Brian Jones, tells A.frame. "Of course, Brian was a perverse character in that he was completely anti-authority and disrespectful of anything that represented it, but at the same time, he had an absolute craving for security and to be mothered."
A.Frame: There is never one way to tell a story, but what was unique in telling this story of Brian Jones and The Rolling Stones compared to others you have told, such as those involving Heidi Fleiss or Kurt Cobain?
The big difference here was that Brian had a very mixed review. Some people loved him, and many people disliked him. They thought he was arrogant, and unpleasant, and went out of his way to be mean to people. To try and understand somebody like that is quite complex. Even Heidi was pretty popular, and people loved her. Kurt Cobain was reasonably straightforward to understand, so it was more about the awfulness of his demise. Brian Jones was a grammar school boy and an A-stream student with overachieving parents. His father designed jet engines and was a mathematician and scientific whiz. He was a Welsh Baptist with very fixed principles, and listening to his interviews, I thought I'd rarely heard anyone so articulate. He was also a tough parent at a time when there was already an enormous divide between the post-War and pre-War generations. That's where I started with Brian, because that was the lens through which one could understand him.
You have to remember that The Rolling Stones were so young at that time. Brian died at 27. He formed the band as a teenager. They were the first of their kind, so there were few rules and no one to follow. It was essentially pre-psychiatrists and all the various things we have today to hold your hand and make you feel better, and there weren't the drugs that we have today. So, it was a real rollercoaster ride. There also weren't any management people in the music business at that time, either. You couldn't say, 'Well, he should have expected this to happen,' because there was nothing to base that on! All those things attracted me to the subject and made the telling of it very important.
There are so many facets to Brian's story despite what was a tragically short life, but your film never feels rushed. How did you strike the right narrative balance when you had so much to touch upon?
It was enormously difficult. I spent twice as long in the edit on this film as I usually would. I was also concerned that Brian Jones was the least well-known member of the band. Most people knew of The Rolling Stones, but I wasn't sure whether to start his story right at the beginning of the film or whether to start with The Stones and then introduce him. I usually have a much clearer sense of the start than I had, so I seemed to be endlessly recutting the beginning and the end. At a certain point in the edit, we discovered all this material hidden in people's attics or suitcases.
There was this recording that the film starts with, which was found in Germany. This journalist had died, but his family uncovered this recording where Brian is analyzing his relationship with his parents. I heard it after we'd locked the film, mixed it, and it had already played in a couple of places. [But] I'd been struggling with this film. And then I found an amazing letter between Brian's father and him; basically, he confessed to being a terrible father and completely misunderstanding the time Brian was living in. It was this amazing letter for a father to have written, and as a parent, it's a letter I hope I never feel I need to write. I realized that was the bookend of the film. So, I got that recording and recut the whole beginning and very much slanted the film in that direction. For one reason or another, it took a long way to get to that point and move away from the telling of the classic rock and roll story.
When you are telling a story involving a band as iconic as The Rolling Stones, it can be quite challenging to find footage that audiences haven't seen before. You mentioned the interview with the German journalist, but how did some of this unseen archival footage find its way to you?
I had three people working for two-and-a-half years trying to find footage. They started eight months before we began to shoot, partly just to see what archive was out there and try to get footage that the interviewees could talk about. The best stuff came from fans or people close to The Stones who hadn't released their footage before. There were an awful lot of dead ends with people saying, 'Oh, I've got this great footage in the garage,' and we'd look at it, and it would be memorabilia from that time but absolutely nothing to do with the band. People weren't filming very much in the 1960s, so it was incredibly difficult.
Bill Wyman, who was the real archivist for the band, looked at the film and said, 'My God, I'm amazed. I hadn't seen half this footage.' That was really down to Kyle Gibbon, one of the producers, who was the archivist and left no stone unturned. He not only went to all the archive libraries but also contacted people who had made little films around that time. Part of the problem was an awful lot of people have died since then, so we were often dealing with the executors of the estate or immediate family — some of whom were more organized than others. The ones who are alive are all in their 70s or 80s. People like Linda Lawrence were very useful, and a lot of the letters written to Brian by his father were found in her attic when her parents were selling the house. It was more of a detective story than anything else to try and get the archive material that hadn't been seen before.
Outside of the archive, you have some contributors on camera, but often, the story is told through their narration heard over accompanying visuals. Why did you choose not to have many people on camera?
Initially, I was going to have a lot more to-camera [interviews]. For example, my film about Whitney and my Leonard Cohen film were much more to-camera films. I enjoyed looking at the peoples' faces, and they were great storytellers. The tricky thing with this film was that people were in their 80s. For many of them, their memories weren't the greatest, and they get very upset if they couldn't remember somebody's name or a street name. They would get so annoyed with themselves for their failing memory that they weren't great interviews. When I put a rough cut of the film together and showed it to a test audience, the overwhelming reaction was, 'My God, these people were so beautiful in the 1960s! What happened to them?'
People became obsessed with aging and almost couldn't wait to rush off and look at themselves in the mirror. They were pulled entirely out of the film every time, and that was not the film I wanted to make. I needed to keep the audience in the era as much as possible and to make a '60s film. Because of that, much of the narrative is a patchwork of people's impressions. Again, that makes the editing very complicated and lengthy because you can go many different ways. I'd never made a film that was so archive-heavy before or had so much interview content that it needed to be almost treated like a poem that you were interlacing — a lot of the time, we were doing a word edit more than a visual one.
Brian's story reminds me of the classic literary and cinematic tales where a metaphorical monster is created who creates chaos but also, deep down, craves stability and acceptance. Did you find that to be true?
There definitely was that. Brian was sufficiently insecure and self-loathing that to lose his position as leader of the band was something he had immense problems dealing with. He couldn't console himself with the fact that he had put together the most successful rock and roll band ever and that it was astoundingly successful and brilliant. It had morphed from the classic blues-R&B kind of band Brian had imagined into something very different. He couldn't go with that change without lashing out at people and being exceptionally difficult.
Bill [Wyman] told stories about how they would go along to a motorway cafe, and everyone would be starving, and Brian would say, 'I'm not hungry.' They'd eat their meal, get back in the car, and Brian would say, 'Oh God, I've got to have something to eat.' They were all on this horrible schedule, because he would always be the guy doing that kind of stuff. It was like he wanted almost to be hated. Someone like Keith Richards had much more sympathy for him, because Brian had shown him the interweaving guitar work and they had been very close musically. With Mick Jagger, there was a dislike almost from the beginning. Brian regarded himself as the leader and would challenge Mick's presence at the front of the stage. In the early footage, you see the two of them almost vying for space, and when they were interviewed, it would be about who would talk first, Brian or Mick. It just got more and more difficult.
The more Brian faded into the background, the less reliable he became and the more substances he took. I have enormous admiration for Mick; he's an ultimate survivor and also incredibly disciplined. But Mick had no understanding for somebody as reckless and irresponsible as Brian. He had a vision of where he was going and what he was going to do, and there wasn't any room for somebody who was slowing them down. It was a tough ride for everybody. I felt very sorry for Brian. It obviously got to a point where nothing was working, and relationships were so strained that they couldn't continue.