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Friday, Aug. 11, 2006

Little sympathy for this devil

It seems like every time a celebrity dies suddenly, there has to be a conspiracy theory. Did Courtney Love have Kurt Cobain whacked? Was John Lennon shot by a government-brainwashed dope? Did somebody deliberately overdose Jim Morrison? Despite the rumors of foul play, these questions will probably remain unanswered.

Stoned Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Leo Gregory in "Stoned"

Director: Stephen Woolley
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: English
Now showing (Aug. 11, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

And yet there is one case where the conspiracy freaks actually got it right: the death of Rolling Stones guitarist and founder Brian Jones. When police discovered his body drowned in a pool on his estate on July 3rd, 1969, it was ruled "death by misadventure," and they blamed Jones' probable intake of alcohol and drugs.

Doubters have pointed out over the years that the autopsy didn't reveal much of either in his system, and the finger of suspicion was often cast at Jones' band mate, Mick Jagger, then going through his occult phase.

The mystery was finally clarified in 1993 when a deathbed confession by one Frank Thorogood, a builder who worked on Jones' estate, confirmed that he had indeed murdered Jones. We finally learned who killed The Stones' golden boy, but Thorogood expired before we could learn why.

Along comes the film "Stoned," directed by Stephen Woolley (longtime producer for director Neil Jordan), which explores the events leading up to that fatal denouement. "Stoned" is, by nature, a loosely fictionalized account of the weeks leading up to the murder, and the curious relationship between the fey, arrogant rock star and his conniving, prole contractor.

Much of the detail is drawn from a memoir by Anna Wohlin, Jones' girlfriend at the time, who found his body floating in the pool, so this isn't just pure extrapolation.

"Stoned" begins several weeks prior to Jones' demise, and it shows The Stones' road manager/fixer Tom Keylock (David Morrissey) introducing his pal Thorogood (Paddy Considine) to Jones (Leo Gregory) to do some work on his estate. Out of earshot of Jones, Keylock promises that it will be easy money, saying "you keep Brian happy and you'll be in the gravy."

Thorogood soon finds, however, that keeping Brian happy isn't so easy. Jones treats Thorogood like a servant, expecting him to be at his beck and call. The rock star seems incapable of doing anything by himself, even having Thorogood, hired as a builder, cook and clean for him.

Jones isn't above messing with the hired help just for the fun of it, either. After lounging around in a pool with his scantily-clad girlfriend as Thorogood and his workers erect a brick wall in the garden, Jones capriciously informs them "it doesn't feel right," and asks them to move it. With much grumbling, they do -- then Jones tells them to move it back. It's a wonder Thorogood didn't kill him then and there, but the builder hides his anger in order to stay on that gravy train.

"Stoned" also uses an elaborate series of flashbacks to show how Jones got to the state -- similar to Cobain's last days -- where he went into self-exile, hiding from his band mates and responsibilities. We see glimpses of The Stones' rise to fame, and Jones' destiny-changing encounter with wild-child actress Anita Pallenberg (Monet Mazur). Soon this femme fatale would drag Jones into a world of hallucinogenic drugs, sadomasochistic sex and other outre pleasures. Jones goes a bit too far out there, though, even for Pallenberg, and she dumps him for Keith Richards (Ben Whishaw), the band's guitarist. This, posits the film, sent Jones into a tailspin from which he never recovered. By the time Thorogood came into his life, he was isolated and bitter.

The film is as good on frilly shirts and mushroom haircuts as you'd expect, and it has incorporated the lens-distorting acid-trip effects from every 1960s hippie film, one in particular being 1969's "Performance," which starred none other than Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg. What's really eerie about "Stoned" is how its clash of sensibilities -- artsy-fartsy, rich, sexually-liberated hippie versus rough, lower-class, contemptuous-but-envious straight -- is a direct mirror of the meeting of Mick Jagger's rock star and James Fox's gangster in "Performance."

Legend has it that Mick took the part in "Performance" and modeled it on Brian, and if "Stoned" is correct, art mirrored life in "Performance" far more than anyone realized at the time.

"Performance," even today, remains a one-of-a-kind film, daring and experimental and louche, while "Stoned" is much more of a conventional biopic. It has a good story to tell, but suffers from one glaring flaw: Jones comes off as such a zonked-out, egocentric that it's hard to care what happens to him. Hints are made of his creative genius, but the filmmakers seem so convinced of his inherent charisma that they forget to display any of it in the film. Like what happened to Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's "The Doors," we get all the excess, tantrums and insanity, and barely a hint of what made so many people fall in love with this man.

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