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Movie review: ‘Stoned'

2½ stars (out of four)

Nothing summons up the darker side of the '60s like a Rolling Stones record, and that's exactly what producer-director Stephen Woolley needs in "Stoned," his flashy bio-drama of original Stone Brian Jones, seen through the past darkly. Whether it's the impudent "Satisfaction," the doom-soaked "Paint It Black," the explosive "Jumping Jack Flash" or the sardonic, demonic "Sympathy for the Devil" (on all of which Jones played), the Stones' music encapsulates that era and especially its dangerous hedonism (which Jones personified). But in "Stoned," we don't hear any of those songs, or any others written and played during those years by Jones' mates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It's one of the movie's major problems.

Based on the mysterious circumstances surrounding the 1969 death by drowning of Jones--the brilliant, rebellious, sometimes morally blind guitarist who founded the group in 1962--it's a movie about '60s self-destruction and decadence. If you view it as nothing more, it's fairly interesting.

But "Stoned" is also about a specific subject, a shocking real-life event involving Jones and the still-rocking superstar band, whose public persona and scorching music most of us know very well. That's where it goes wrong. The movie digs into Jones' hidden life and re-creates the period with some style and wit.

But "Stoned" can't connect with us fully because it's been mostly stripped of the Stones' songs. In the end, Woolley didn't strike a deal for their music and it's a crippling absence.

Jones died shortly after being fired by the rest of the group--a schism that had been growing for years--in the swimming pool of his East Sussex estate, Cotchford Farm. (Cotchford was also called "Pooh Manor," so named because it was once the domicile of A.A. Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh stories, great favorites of Jones). And though the official verdict was death "by misadventure" (or accident), many have suspected foul play. That's what the movie concludes as well, naming his alleged killer (a person now dead) and trying to re-create the complex web of perverse psychology that Woolley and his writers, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (James Bond scribes on "Die Another Day"), believe drove the crime.

"Stoned" also pungently portrays the sometimes glittering, sometimes sleazy ensemble swirling around Jones, a gallery that includes the group's cynical late-'60s road manager Tom Keylock (David Morrissey, in the film's best performance), fellow Stones Keith Richards (Ben Whishaw), Mick Jagger (Luke de Woolfson), Bill Wyman (Josef Altin) and Charlie Watts (James D. White), Monet Mazur as actress Anita Pallenberg (who was first Jones' girlfriend and then Richards'), Jones' lover Anna Wohlin (Tuva Novotny) and Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine of "In America") a rough character hired by Keylock for some work at Jones' manor.

In true '60s fashion, "Stoned" flashes back and forth--back to the band's early years, the time when, in real life, Jones, advertising for blues players for a new band, attracted the team of Jagger and Richards. (Drummer Watts and bassist Wyman joined later.) The movie skips over most of that, dealing far more heavily with Jones' degeneration at Pooh Manor. (Indeed, the rocker's blond bangs sometimes suggest a grownup, dissipated Christopher Robin.)

As the film opens, Jones is alienated from the group, missing gigs, mostly inactive at recording dates, unable to tour America because of narcotics convictions and wallowing at the manor in a sea of drugs and sex. He is about to be fired by his mates and is at the end of his tether, a rock idol with nothing left but the lifestyle. And he keeps spiraling down--though to Woolley he remains something of a rebel/hero.

Woolley, making his directorial debut here, produced "The Crying Game" and most of Neil Jordan's other movies. One of Britain's best and brightest producers, he has a great feel for the excess and energy of the pop world, and he makes "Stoned" a sometimes bold and knowing re-creation of the '60s. He gets the jump-cutting, swoony, high-style look of that era's hipper British movies-- such as 1970's blistering "Performance," in which Jagger plays a reclusive rocker modeled partly on Jones.

But it's a depressing story made even more of a downer by the absence of any Stones-performed music from their prime '60s years. Woolley, by creative choice, ignores the Jagger-Richards songbook and makes do instead with song covers from their early albums performed by others ("Little Red Rooster," "Time Is on My Side" ), blues by the tragic Robert Johnson and '60s period stuff. (Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" is fine for a druggie montage but it doesn't do the job the way the Stones' "Something Happened to Me Yesterday" might have.)

When he produced "Backbeat," a good 1993 movie about the early years of the Beatles, Woolley used new versions of the group's Hamburg show material by other artists. But the absence of Stones songs here takes the edge off the rest of "Stoned" as well. It's symptomatic of a bigger problem: a tendency to hero-worship Jones, when what he merits more is compassion. After "Capote," good as it was, I wanted more of the writer's life than the movie showed me; that's much more the case here. And, in the end, a Stones (or a Jones) movie with no Stones songs is itself a bit like death by misadventure.

mwilmington@tribune.com

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'Stoned'

Directed by Stephen Woolley; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade; photographed by John Mathieson; edited by Sam Sneade; production designed by John Beard; music by David Arnold; produced by Woolley, Finola Dwyer. A Screen Media Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:43. No MPAA rating. Adult (for nudity, sexuality, language, drug use and violence).

Brian Jones - Leo Gregory

Frank Thorogood - Paddy Considine

Anita Pallenberg - Monet Mazur

Tom Keylock - David Morrissey

Keith Richards - Ben Whishaw

Mick Jagger - Luke de Woolfson

Janet - Amelia Warner

Bill Wyman - Josef Altin

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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