With 36 films to his credit, documentarian Nick Broomfield never stops long enough to get stuck in a rut. Whether profiling celebrities and serial killers or examining complex social issues, his self-reflective storytelling and hands-on production have influenced generations of filmmakers. His latest film, The Stones and Brian Jones, chronicles the short, tumultuous life of the Rolling Stones founding guitarist who played a pivotal role in shaping the band before his drowning death in 1969 at the age of 27. As Broomfield explains in an interview with Decider, the film was inspired by a chance encounter with Jones when the director was still a teenager. The film premieres on various streaming services today, November 17th.
DECIDER: Tell us about meeting Brian Jones when you were 14.
NICK BROOMFIELD: It was an incredible experience. I was traveling back to this rather authoritarian school that I was going to and saw Brian in this first class compartment. He was all by himself. He gave me his autograph and said “Sit down, let’s chat a while,” which I couldn’t really believe was happening. He was probably only 20, because he died seven years later at 27. He was still a kid really. I always had a fondness for him and was shocked when he died. One thought, “They must have such a wonderful life. They’ve got all the girls. They’ve got beautiful houses.” It was hard to understand what happened to him so I wanted to reexamine the 1960s and the excesses and someone of that time as well as its incredible artistic triumphs and Brian embodied all of that.
What sort of a background did Jones come from?
NB: Brian was brought up in a very strict way. He went to church every Sunday and his parents were very religious. I think Brian looked to the blues as an escape. It was going to be his salvation from this life that his parents wanted him to have so he really plunged himself into music. In those days it was very hard to get a single from Muddy Waters or the other blues artists and Brian was a collector of these records and would go around to other people’s houses to listen to them and would meticulously work out how to play the slide guitar, or what key the song was in. It was very academic. I think when he formed the Stones, he was by far the most musically advanced.
In his early interviews, he seems so professorial when discussing the blues, in contrast to Stones guitarist Keith Richards, for whom it seems more of a gut response.
NB: He didn’t really commit to any particular instrument. He was a complete eccentric in his choice of instruments and I think that was his passion. He didn’t have that same passion as someone like Keith, who put it all into his guitar playing and totally identified with it that way. And I think Brian’s problem was that he didn’t have the belief in himself to really say, “I think this is a great song, we should play this song.” He was very insecure about his abilities.
How much do you think drugs fed his insecurity and paranoia?
NB: It was a time when people didn’t really know about the long term effects of drugs. I think now we’re much more wise about our health and being safety conscious. I think someone like Mick Jagger was very prudent. He might have dabbled here and there, but played it very safe. Brian was a much more desperate character who was pretty reckless.
Many in the Stones camp have said Brian wasn’t “strong enough” for the pressures of fame and seemed fated for an early death. Do you think that’s true or just hindsight?
NB: Charlie Watts, who was probably a kinder person in a way or more understanding, said Brian did everything to excess. I think he did that because he felt the band he’d created was being taken away from him. It was his dream and his vision and he’d lost control of it. I think he plunged himself into reckless relationships without thinking of the consequences. In the same way that he was taking drugs, he seemed relatively friendless. I remember talking to Kathy Etchingham, who was Jimi Hendrix’s girlfriend, and Brian would call her up sometimes and just wanted her to come over to watch him when he went to sleep to make sure he woke up, because he even terrified himself. So he was paranoid and crazy and at his wit’s end and had kind of lost control.
NB: I just thought, nobody needed to kill him, he was doing an excellent job himself. He was so self-loathing and had so little self-regard. He treated himself terribly, in the same way that he treated other people really. I didn’t want to open up the can of worms and waste a whole lot of time in the film looking at something I disagreed with.
What do you think of the cult of Brian Jones that feels the Rolling Stones were at their best with him?
NB: I think that the beginning of anything is always the most exciting. Because it’s a time of experimentation. It’s a time when everybody’s trying to find their place. What I’d like people to take away from the film is that Brian was a complicated guy, full of excess, full of talent, and a certain amount of beauty. Someone like Brian, people either seem to hate them or love them. And I think when you have a complicated person, like Brian, it’s very easy to rush to judgment and condemn somebody out of hand. Even though his behavior was often pretty reprehensible, I hope it’s a pretty complicated portrait of somebody and trying to understand all their little foibles, rather than saying he was a bad person.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician.