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Any Sympathy for the Devil? A review of ‘The Stones and Brian Jones’ (2023)

Douglas Young asks “Any Sympathy for the Devil?” A review of the documentary The Stones and Brian Jones (2023)

With The Stones and Brian Jones, veteran English documentarian Nick Broomfield weaves a captivating collage of revealing film footage and candid interviews to paint a poignant portrait of the creator of pop music’s second biggest band. Though an idolized rock star, Brian Jones was so wracked by personal problems that he relentlessly pursued a path of self-destruction. In doing so, he became the founding member of “the 27 Club” of famous rockers whose excess killed them at age 27 (including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse). The movie also conveys the youth culture of 1960s Britain that flattered Jones and hastened his dissolution. Throughout, the rockumentary raises many questions about the powerfully seductive allure of fame and the dangerous ways it can enable people to act their worst, with disastrous results.

Despite its brevity, the whirlwind life of Brian Jones is shown to be one of dizzyingly dramatic contrasts: so musically talented, handsome, charming, successful, and idolized by millions, yet so tortured by insecurity, loneliness, and paranoia, all amplified by an accelerating, gargantuan intake of booze and drugs. It was certainly a life of enormous promise. Having grown up in a middle-class home, Jones would assemble and initially lead the Rolling Stones, the musical group whose massive impact only the Beatles would exceed. Jones was such a musical virtuoso that he was proficient on guitar, piano, harmonica, marimba, mellotron, saxophone, clarinet, and still more instruments. Can you imagine the Stones’ passionately pulsating 1966 hit song, “Paint It Black,” without Jones’s remarkable sitar contribution, or 1967’s hauntingly hypnotic “Ruby Tuesday” sans Brian’s beautiful recorder flute?

Though a fan of Jones’s music, Broomfield still pulls back the curtain to let us at least glimpse the man’s dark side as well, and how ironic that the acutely sensitive child who so craved love and affection from perhaps emotionally constipated parents would become a supremely selfish narcissist. In fact, Jones left a long trainwreck of abused young ladies and at least five (though I have read six) illegitimate children with as many women (mostly teenagers) for whom he seems to have cared and done nothing. Whatever Jones’s reserved, traditional parents’ faults, they at least gave him a stable family and an education. Like Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, Jones is a poster boy for the maxim that we must “separate the artist from the man” to appreciate his art since, well beyond the typical hedonistic rock star, Jones exhibited a sociopathic streak seemingly devoid of the slightest pangs of conscience. He was not only unfaithful to his many girlfriends (surprise) but, despite his wealth, the film shows no trace of his ever providing for any of his many children. When one came with his mother to try to see his daddy, Jones and his latest conquest merely laughed at them from his upstairs window as they stood forlorn in the street. He also enjoyed secretly spiking people’s drinks with powerful drugs, flicking cigarette ashes in a bandmate’s hair, and posing in a Nazi stormtrooper uniform.

No matter how emotionally Dickensian the film hints Jones’s childhood may have been, who could excuse his utter indifference, casual cruelty, and even sadism toward those closest to him? Even if Jones was a victim of emotional neglect growing up, Dennis Prager warns that victims can become the most dangerous people of all because, if lacking a moral compass, they can pervert their victimhood to justify the unjustifiable. Unchecked, there is no end to what horrors can be explained away. But can any of Hitler or Stalin’s colossal crimes be excused because their fathers beat them so brutally?

As to the charge that singer Sir Mick Jagger and lead guitarist Keith Richards were somehow mean to fire Jones from the band he created, how could his bandmates have done otherwise by 1969? In the recording studio, Jones’s drug-induced stupor had long deformed the once innovative instrumentalist into a pathetic, space-wasting distraction. Though the film implies Jagger and Richards turning off Jones’s studio amplifier was somehow hurtful teasing, was it not more likely an act of tactful mercy for all concerned? Even if Jones had not been dismissed from the group, his mounting drug busts would have legally prevented him from embarking on the Rolling Stones’ imminent 1969 American concert tour.

Notwithstanding all the supposed mystery clouding Jones’s death by drowning in his pool due to drink and drugs, Broomfield proves no one who knew Jones could have been at all surprised. With his massive and mounting abuse of alcohol, amphetamines, acid, and sleeping pills, how else could this story have ended? Just how chemically crippled must you be to get fired for being a druggie by Keith Richards? Even when Richards and Jagger told him he was no longer in the group, Richards says Jones did not seem to fully understand since he was lost somewhere “in the stratosphere.” Though Broomfield’s heretofore most famous documentary, Kurt & Courtney, examines the theory that Nirvana grunge rocker Kurt Cobain may have been murdered despite the obvious physical evidence he shot himself, it is striking how Broomfield betrays not the slightest doubt that Jones alone penned his obituary.

In spite of ardent Jones fans’ claim that the Rolling Stones’ finest phase was the one with (and because of) Brian from 1962 to 1969, a quite credible case can be made that he was irrelevant to the band’s massive, long-term success. Though a remarkable instrumentalist, Jones utterly failed to develop any songwriting talent, without which the group would have soon disappeared into obscurity as just another cover band. Instead, it was Jagger and Richards whose musical vision grew well beyond Jones’s obsessive blues to add major servings of pop, rock, and country to the band’s aural mix and who wrote the astonishing string of hit songs that would make the Stones superstars. Way more so than Jones’s spiralling drug dependency, the film shows it was the Glimmer Twins’ considerable composing talents that saw Brian reduced from the leader of the group to a sideman, albeit an ever less functional one.

As the movie’s exciting concert scenes make clear, Jagger and Richards also each developed a far stronger stage presence than Jones ever had. Nor could Jones sing or compete with Jagger and Richards in terms of charisma or wit. And it was only after Jones’s exit that the Stones achieved by far their greatest commercial and critical success with an amazing streak of innovative hit albums from 1969’s Let It Bleed through 1983’s Undercover. When George Harrison got sick of John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney treating him like a studio session player, “the quiet Beatle” summoned the discipline to develop his own songwriting skills to earn more songs on Beatle albums and a major solo career after the band broke up. But Jones reacted to his ever-shrinking role in the Rolling Stones by choosing to sink ever deeper into self-pity and drugs. If not for his firing, early death, and the conspiracy theories it spawned, would not Jones have remained a sideman ever more in the background on the Stones’ stage, like bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts? And what would be wrong with that? The Stones’ legendary rhythm section was phenomenal. The problem is that, long before his death, Jones let alcohol and drugs deprive him of being a remotely reliable or competent bandmate which is precisely why he was canned.

Even had Jones lived, could his public reputation have survived being inevitably exposed as an extreme satyr who so blithely harmed so many young women and children? If yes, what does that say about the moral bar to which society holds its celebrities? If not so handsome and playing in a popular band, could Jones have gotten away with inflicting so much pain on so many others or be of any interest today? Perhaps the only reason we care about him is because his life offers such a hyper-extreme cautionary tale. Indeed, how many folks recall the better, albeit quiet and scandal-free, Stones guitarist Mick Taylor who replaced Jones during the group’s 1969-74 golden years?

Perhaps my biggest criticism of The Stones and Brian Jones is actually the ultimate compliment: I so wish it was much longer than 92 minutes. As remarkably well edited and paced as the film is, and with absolutely no filler, it should have made more time to examine Jones’ strained relationship with his parents to discover precisely why they threw him out of the house at 17 and why he nevertheless remained so concerned with what they thought of him ever afterward. Indeed, the reckless rock star with legions of screaming fans still wrote his parents of an impending visit to warn them his hair was long – but insisted it was clean. When famously busted for drugs, he sent them a desperate telegram begging them not to judge him. But if he so craved his mother and father’s approval, why did he persist in stubbornly embracing such a debauched life – and so shamelessly in public?

Though Broomfield is to be commended for not ignoring the disturbing traits of his subject, he is still too soft on Jones because the movie leaves out so many of the most sobering facts that have all been well documented in many respected biographies and news articles, like Jones beating girlfriends (Keith Richards did not so much steal Brian’s beautiful lover Anita Pallenberg as save her from his violence), whipping prostitutes, and caring so little about his children that two sons actually shared the same first and middle names. If the film focused on anyone but a long-dead rock star, could Broomfield get away with not bluntly condemning such a violent cad, especially in the post-Me, Too Era? Although, to be fair, if the documentary dwelled on Jones’s sins, the story might be too sordid for viewers to stomach.

While not excusing Jones’s outrageous excesses, could they be better understood if shown to have been exacerbated by a bipolar disorder or some other psychiatric condition? It would have been most intriguing for the movie to examine the many possible psychological problems plaguing Jones since he appears to have clearly self-medicated major mental difficulties. Why did Broomfield not at least mention the conspiracy theory that Jones was murdered, if only to refute it, particularly since there have been so many articles, books, and even police inquiries investigating it? After all, the director’s Kurt and Courtney examined a far less plausible murder conspiracy theory.

Much like Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 2021 Hemingway documentary, The Stones and Brian Jones profiles an often-detestable man, but reveals him to be complicated enough to elicit some sympathy – never condoning any of his considerable character flaws but instead helping us see how deeply hurt he was and yet capable of making joyful music and occasionally even being kind. Perhaps that is the ultimate accolade for this film because, despite all Jones’s callous self-centeredness, I still cannot help feeling sorry for him since – as one of the young mothers he ditched said of him magnanimously – he comes across as desperately insecure, lonely, depressed, and seemingly incapable of confronting his problems. Ironically, Jones’s biggest victim was himself.

What an indictment of the Stones organization and the whole rock music business that the film reveals not one person in all that milieu who ever tried to be a real friend to Jones and help wean him off drink and drugs or convince him he had value independent of being a pop idol. As an aunt of mine once said of a cousin devoted to a destructive lifestyle that would likewise sentence him to a premature death, “Well, I think he needs a good, strong dose of religion.” As naïve as it may be to think Brian Jones could have been so cured, he clearly seems to have been far too fragile, psychologically and physically, to cope with the pressures of being a major celebrity.

A final feather in Broomfield’s cap is that his film prompts so many questions about not just Jones but everyone we have ever known who struggled as he did. More than being a warning about the perils of an utterly undisciplined life, may The Stones and Brian Jones inspire us to be far more proactive in not just spotting troubled souls but reaching out to help them. For all the interviewees moaning about how crushing it was for poor Brian to be fired from the Rolling Stones, this documentary demonstrates that, no matter how much fame, fortune, or professional success one attains, they are truly trivial next to living an emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy life – and that is no minor cinematic feat.

Dr. Douglas Young is a political science professor emeritus who taught government and history for over 33 years and whose essays, poems, and short stories have appeared in a variety of publications in America, Canada, and Europe. His first novel, Deep in the Forest, was published in 2021 and the second, Due South, came out in 2022. His next book, This Little Opinion Plus $1.50 Will Buy You a Coke: A Collection of Essays, is about to be published.

8 comments to Any Sympathy for the Devil? A review of ‘The Stones and Brian Jones’ (2023)

  • Kirk

    Is it huge shock that an abused child grew up to be an abusive SOB, himself?

    I have noted a certain correlation between abused and abuser. They morph into each other so seamlessly that I often find it hard to sympathize with the victim.

    Mainly because there’s an unfortunate tendency for the abused to be the sort of person that attracts abuse by the abuser, only to later in life become another abuser.

    I’ve seen this play out in real time, on several different occasions. Girl I went to school with? Pretty much the poster-child for “abused kid” that went on to be “rescued” from her family situation by a succession of other abusers. Culminated in later life, when I ran into her again, and she’s abusing her own kids from several fathers.

    I’m going to propose that there’s something going on with that, and that it might, just might, be somehow communicable through either genetics, epigenetics, or just conditioning by the environment.

    Now, her little sister? Apparently, made of different stuff, because she managed to pull herself out of it, and made a decent life for herself. More-or-less identical life experience, close to identical genetics, but totally different outcome. Why? Well, for one thing, she was never a victim; her abusers received ferocious resistance, to the point that she was eventually removed from the home in her late teens. Totally not a woman with a “victim/victimizer” mentality, and went on to make a fair success of herself, raising stable kids in a stable home with a decent guy she found for herself. You look at the two of them, and it’s the difference between night and day.

    I’d go out on a limb and make the proposition that there’s a lot of congruity between “abused” and “abuser”. You can’t have the latter without the former being there. Being abused is a decision you make, past a certain point. And, the sad fact is that being abused is very often a precondition for becoming an abuser, yourself.

  • llamas

    Oh, nonsense – as far as this story goes. There’s no meaningful evidence that Jones was ‘abused’ as a child or a teenager, in fact, quite the contrary – his parents seem to have indulged his interests and supported his efforts to become a musician. I think what we’re seeing here is an all-too-typical attempt to cast the mores and customs of a past age (remember, we’re talking about 70-odd years ago) in modern psycho-babble terms – referring to his parents as ’emotionally constipated’, for example. From what I’ve read, Jones had what was (for the time and place) a perfectly-normal, middle class upbringing, went to good schools and did quite well, and generally had every opportunity.

    I think it’s much-more likely that he was just a natural-born asshole, a borderline sociopath, as demonstrated (as is tangentially referred to in the OP) by his truly-horrible behaviour towards women. His first instance of getting a girl pregnant and abandoning her (and the child) occurred when he was only 17 and well-before his well-documented abuse of drugs and alcohol. A one-off? No, not really – he had fathered 3 illegitimate children before he turned 20.

    He was just a jerk, who would have come to some more-or-less ignominous end had it not been for his fortuitous musical talents – which merely funded a later and slightly-more-upmarket demise. And now people are indulging in retrospective rehabilitation of what they perceive as a tragic, misunderstood genius, by fabricating a dark and destructive childhood backstory. Bollocks – to quote John Lydon, who truly had a horrible and deprived childhood, yet did not turn out to be a self-destructive asshole. Sure – some people are turned into assholes by their environment and circumstances – but not a few of them are born that way, and stay that way in spite of every positive and supportive influence.



  • Kirk

    I think a reply to llamas is either hung or has vanished into the aether…

    In any event, what I meant to reply was that the entire premise of excusing behavior because “bad childhood” is something that’s aggravated me all my life, having grown up with several sociopathic bastards in near proximity to me. The rest of the family was always excusing them, saying that it wasn’t their fault, they’d suffered, been abused, and so forth. No responsibility was ever assessed, no accountability for the behavior was ever demanded.

    Being the proximate victim for a lot of it, I developed a rather negative attitude towards both sorts of people. If you’re going to excuse outright sociopathy because someone suffered a horrendous childhood? You’re as much a “bad person” as the sociopath, because you’re excusing the behavior and essentially making their victims the responsible “bad guy” in the situation. Which is entirely inexcusable; bad behavior and conduct? That’s on the sociopath, and nobody else.

    There’s a certain point past which you are entirely responsible for your own conduct and behavior. I’d submit that point should be set somewhere in the mid-20s, once you’ve been out on your own away from your “horrid childhood”. If you can’t figure out how to behave like a decent human being? That’s entirely on you, and nobody else. The excuse should have a finite lifespan, and if you’re still relying on your imperfect parenting and life as a child for a “get out of jail free” card when you’re in your thirties and forties…? That’s on you.

    And, let’s not leave out the enablers, either. You see someone behaving like a sociopath towards others? You’ve got no damn excuse for saying things like “Well, it’s not his/her fault… They had a bad childhood…”, as if that excuses everything. It very much does not, and when you tell the victim of said sociopath that they should feel sorry for the asshole abusing them because they “had a bad childhood”? You’re a bad person, yourself. If you don’t have the moral fortitude and strength to do something about the bullshit you observe, then at least have the courtesy and respect for the victims to not make them a part of the whole thing, when they themselves had nothing to do with the sociopath suffering the way they did.

    At some point, you have to become responsible for your own conduct and your own behavior. If you’re still skating along on that “bad childhood” justification a decade after you left that environment? You’re the bad person, the one with the problem. Functional and decent adult human beings do not seek to perpetrate the same abuses they suffered on others. And, if you tell the victims of such a miserable bastard that they shouldn’t mind, because the miserable bastard had it rough as a kid…? You ought to be ashamed of yourself, and recognize that you’re not a hell of a lot better, yourself.

    Especially when you’re telling that bullshit to a small child who doesn’t understand why the hell they’re being abused. That’s a pretty clear act of outright evil, to my mind.

  • Clovis Sangrail


    There’s a certain point past which you are entirely responsible for your own conduct and behavior. I’d submit that point should be set somewhere in the mid-20s, once you’ve been out on your own away from your “horrid childhood”.

    Absolutely! Even if that’s not “fair”, it’s what any rational society has to conclude to function.

  • I watched this documentary, if you will this rockumentary, a while back, and my main take on Jones was that, other than Bill Wyman saying he made some good contributions to a couple of their songs, no one seemed to have a good word to say about him.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Coming from Generation X, rather than being a Boomer, I was interested in the music of the Stones, Beatles, etc, but I never venerated them. I was immune to charms of Lennon, for instance, who appears to have been both rather unpleasant in certain ways and in thrall to his crazy wife. Brian Jones appeared to be a dumpster fire of a person, but talented in terms of music.

    As the Boomers fade, we get a few of these documentaries and docu-dramas. There have been biopics of Elvis, James Brown, Johnny Cash, and no doubt more to come. They all appear beguiling characters in certain ways, and ghastly in others.

  • Kirk

    @Johnathan Pearce;

    It’s an unfortunate thing, but great art and entertainment rarely comes from well-adjusted, happy, and relatively “decent” human beings. It’s always the tortured, the mentally “off”, the fringe.

    Or, so it often seems. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single one of the “Greats” in any field that were people I’d like to share a home with, or even just a beer.

    I think you could speculate for hours why this should be so, but there ya go… The madness place in all our souls seems to be where the art and beauty comes from, which may say a lot about why we tolerate these freakish folk in the first place. Certainly, if you judged them by their conduct? They’d all die poor, in an alleyway somewhere.

  • Steven R

    If he had lived into his 80s, got therapy and got his head together, and dropped dead of too many cheeseburgers no one would mention him now. But as a member of the 27 Club we get to remember him when he was young, vibrant, handsome, and talented and with a bunch of demons he tried to drink away and didn’t.