Beyond the Multiplex

Was the Stones' Brian Jones murdered? Plus: A Belgian film about a man who sells his baby is one of the greatest films in recent years.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 23, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

Stephen Woolley believes he has solved a 37-year-old murder mystery, and the world is pretty much divided into two kinds of people: Those who will be utterly fascinated by "Stoned," Woolley's film about the 1969 death of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, and those who couldn't possibly care less.

You don't have to have been alive or conscious in the summer of 1969 to care about Brian Jones. To a certain breed of rock 'n' roll guy (and an ever-larger tribe of rock 'n' roll gals), whether young or old, Jones is an immortal, the first and in many ways the purest of rock gods. As Woolley, 53, explained to me during our telephone interview, Jones was pretty much the guy who invented rock-star flamboyance and decadence, as well as rock's first true guitar hero.

Jones' career was short and he has almost been obliterated within the history of his own band, which has soldiered on without him through four decades of sold-out stadium shows. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards long ago stopped seeming satanic or messianic. They've become veteran showmen like their blues heroes, rocking into middle age and beyond, but Jones is perennially trapped in the glamour and danger of swinging London, a symbol of the 1960s at its most vibrant and treacherous. In one direction, his legacy leads to ax legends like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page; in another to a long list of rock martyrs: Jimi, Janis, Morrison, Cobain. (In many ways, Gus Van Sant's Cobain film, "Last Days," is the same movie as "Stoned," only without any dialogue you can understand.)

On the other hand, there were plenty of people alive in 1969 who didn't give a crap about Brian Jones or the entire generation he allegedly represented, and that to some extent is the subject of "Stoned." I found it an often exciting film, as lurid and flawed as its subject, but full of arresting moments and images. (Stephanie Zacharek will review it in more depth tomorrow.) In a crazy-busy week, that's far from the only worthwhile movie. We've also got a Belgian film of uncommon craft and intensity that won last year's big prize at Cannes, along with an improbable documentary about life, and hairdressing, in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

"Stoned": The anarchic goat-god of the '60s, laid to rest at last?

Listen, there's no way to discuss Woolley's "Stoned" without pretty much giving away its general hypothesis about Brian Jones' death. So members of the spoiler police need to move on to some other content provider. No, seriously, I mean it; I don't want a single how-could-you-do-this-to-me e-mail. I promise not to discuss exactly what happens at the climax of Woolley's film, when Jones drowns in the pool of his Sussex estate, the same house that once belonged to A.A. Milne and had statues of Christopher Robin, Pooh, Piglet, etc., in the garden. (Yes! Brian Jones died in the House at Pooh Corner!) But you're going to get the idea.

Fine. If you're still here, you may well know that conspiracy theories about Jones' death have floated almost since his funeral -- which Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, for reasons debated to this day, did not attend. Woolley isn't buying any of these more baroque notions. After years of investigation, and turning up two witnesses hardly anyone else has spoken to, he argues that Jones (played in the film by Leo Gregory) was murdered, or killed half-accidentally, on the night of July 3, 1969, after an altercation with a contractor who'd been working for him and to some extent had become his friend.

This idea isn't new either. The contractor, a man named Frank Thorogood (played in the film by the terrific English actor Paddy Considine), supposedly confessed to the crime in 1993, when he himself was dying. But Woolley's account, whether you buy it or not, has more filled-in details and a more plausible chain of chronology and causality than any previous version of how and why Thorogood may have killed Brian Jones.

"Stoned" fills in some of the history of Jones' life and career up to that point; especially his debauched adventures with the legendary Anita Pallenberg (Monet Mazur), who was first his girlfriend and then Richards', and the Stones' infamous drug-fueled visit to Morocco. Although Richards (Ben Whishaw) and Jagger (Luke de Woolfson) appear in the film, they're minor background characters, and viewers in search of a by-the-numbers biopic about the band's early years will have to wait for an authorized version, which is to say until hell freezes over.

About half the film is focused on Jones' final weeks at Cotchford Farm in Sussex, after Jagger and Richards had ejected him from the band. He was surrounded there by a small coterie: his post-Pallenberg girlfriend Anna Wohlin (Tuva Novotny), Stones chauffeur and all-around wrangler Tom Keylock (David Morrissey), Thorogood, and sometimes Keylock's mistress, a nurse named Janet Lawson (Amelia Warner). It was this group of distinctly unfamous people, Woolley felt sure, who could unlock the original rock-star mystery.

Woolley has been laying the groundwork for "Stoned" and researching the Jones case for years, but he hasn't been slacking off in his professional life. Although this is his directing debut, he's far from a novice filmmaker. He's best known for producing Neil Jordan's films, working on everything from "The Company of Wolves" to "The Crying Game" to "Interview With the Vampire" and Jordan's most recent film, "Breakfast on Pluto." Woolley's other producing credits include "Waterland," "Backbeat," "Welcome to Woop Woop," "Fever Pitch" and "Little Voice." He spoke to me from his production office in England.

You've waited a long time to make your directing debut, but you've done it with a splash.

I didn't really think I was waiting. I didn't ever think I was going to be a producer, to be honest. That was a bit of a surprise. I was just a guy who started off loving movies and going to the cinema. I had my own repertory cinema, and then I started a little video company in the early '80s, based on the kinds of films I was showing in my cinema, which were, you know, "Eraserhead" and "Fitzcarraldo" and "Mephisto." Before I knew it I was producing "Company of Wolves," and I went on to do all sorts of films with Neil Jordan and other directors. I never thought, "Oh, that's it, I'm a producer," any more than I thought, "Oh, that's it, I'm a cinema usher." It was an organic progression, just enjoying working with movies and being able to continue and contribute.

One of the things that's really fun about "Stoned" is the way you capture the period. I know you've been very careful about having the filmmaking techniques, the colors and the actual film stock be true to the '60s -- which is a very Neil Jordan thing to do. But the little things all look right, and I really enjoyed the hallucinatory style.

Well, you know, I had to focus on the minutiae of the period. That was crucial. I couldn't do what people with lots of money do -- huge armies of extras and massive wide shots. Instead of that, instead of reconstructing Oxford Street or Carnaby Street in 1969, I went for something else, which was re-creating that era through small details and through the music. [The soundtrack includes music by the Jefferson Airplane, the Small Faces, the White Stripes and other bands, but only cover versions of Rolling Stones hits.] You really get to see what Brian is wearing, for example, and what Mick and Keith are wearing when they come to fire him.

Yes, the clothes are extraordinary.

You see the slow metamorphosis from the more innocent puppy-dog band that Brian ran at the beginning of the film to the ruthless band that fires him at the end. This is also the story of how Keith and Mick became so much more assured and in charge of themselves. Letting go of Brian -- which was going to be the title of the film at one point. That's what they finally did, and that's what everyone did. He was left in that house to drift off, because people were fed up with his behavior. They were quite happy to say, "Well, Brian's in his house. Great. We don't need him in the band anymore. Let's let go of him."

Do you think, if the surviving Rolling Stones ever see this movie, that they'll recognize themselves in it?

I didn't really want to make a film for the Rolling Stones or about the Rolling Stones. I couldn't get permission to use Rolling Stones music, and I suppose that answers the question of what they think of it. Mick and Keith haven't seen the film, or if they have seen it they haven't commented on it. I wanted to make a film about the times, the '60s and the headiness of that time as exemplified by Brian Jones. And also, just as important, a movie about Frank Thorogood and characters like him, who represented the majority of Britain at the time.

Yes, your portrait of Thorogood is remarkably sympathetic, considering you're accusing him of murdering one of rock's most legendary figures.

As a child growing up, all my uncles and my dad had fought in the Second World War, or certainly had been greatly affected by it. So when these guys came along, these effete, long-haired, effeminate-looking pop stars of the '60s who got all the fame and the girls and the money, there was a huge amount of anger. Those guys who had fought in the Second World War weren't that old! They were only in their 40s at that time. They had come back home to London when it was a bomb site, and they were now witnessing this social change in Britain where, you know, anarchy and rebelliousness were the order of the day. Smashing guitars onstage, and letting your hair grow long. You wouldn't have won a war that way! You won a war through discipline and order.

So there was a huge amount of anger in my family. I remember my cousins who were older than me just being whacked around the head. Girls told to get back to their rooms and put on decent clothes -- how could you wear a skirt as short as that? I don't think the generation gap has ever been as wide as it was in the '60s.

So I really wanted to show Brian's side of it, which was this tiny little '60s world, this tiny bubble, with the world going on outside of that. Most of us as children wanted to be inside the bubble. We were looking in enviously. The generation above us, our parents, were trying to smash the bubble. They didn't want that world; they wanted to do what Frank does to Brian in the film. It wasn't as if parents wanted to kill their children, but they got that angry. You felt sometimes, when my uncles came back from the pub, that if they got any angrier there'd be real trouble  That's the war I wanted to put in the film.

I was really struck by the extent to which Brian invented the rock-star archetype. You know, dressing in women's clothes but being a ladies' man, the flamboyant but deadpan manner, the cultivation of an ultra-cool inner circle. All of that is a cliché now too, but then it was genuinely shocking.

Yeah, it was. You know, there was a period when Mick and Keith were fairly boring looking, and then, around '65 or '66, you see them taking on Brian's persona. They're suddenly going to the same tailors, they're wearing flamboyant clothes, the beads are on.

Brian was the person you wanted to visit in London in the early '60s. When Dylan came over, he wasn't interested in the other Rolling Stones. It was Brian he made a beeline for. John Lennon hung out with Brian. Pete Townshend thought Brian was the genius of the band

I wanted to show that Brian was a truly original '60s icon. He experimented with drugs, he experimented with sex, he experimented with music. In America, you obviously had your extroverts, people like Little Richard who were blurring the edges of sexuality. People who took their stage acts to extremes: Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, that spirit of showmanship. None of it was as intellectually fueled as Brian Jones, none of it was about Aleister Crowley or the Moroccan music he recorded. He was the first white guy to record those people

What got him tongue-tied, and made him lose his nerve, was when Mick became the spokesman for the band, and the so-called spokesman for a generation  then I think Brian got lost in a world of drugs. He was no longer a coherent or in any way reasonable voice for the '60s generation.

OK, tell me how you developed your own theory about Brian's death.

I got introduced to this project about 12 years ago when I read two books, one shortly after the other, about the so-called murder of Brian Jones. [These were Alan Clayson's "Brian Jones" and Terry Rawlings' "Brian Jones -- Who Killed Christopher Robin?"] I commissioned two writers, Rob Wade and Neal Purvis, to start working on a script: "Well, there must be a movie here. I didn't know Brian Jones was murdered."

Both of the books, which go through all the parties involved and retail various conspiracy theories about who did it and how it was done, etc. -- they both name Frank Thorogood. In one of them there's a deathbed confession. But they both want to connect it to some other, bigger thing. So I started my own investigation. I tracked down Brian's girlfriend, Anna Wohlin, whom neither of those authors had spoken to. She was living in Stockholm. She's still living now, I brought her to London and had a long interview. Then she published her book, which was called "The Murder of Brian Jones," and I had to buy the rights to that one too.

She was very clear about what she thought happened that night, and after speaking to her the police even thought about reopening the case. They didn't, in the end, but they gave me all the evidence they did turn up, all the phone numbers and so forth. They told me, "You won't find Janet Lawson, the nurse. She's disappeared off the face of the earth and we believe she's dead." So I hired another private investigator, on the recommendation of Stanley Kubrick's assistant, and he managed to track down her address.

I wrote her a long letter, and I told her about all the movies I had produced and I said, "Listen, I want to make a serious film." Luckily for me, her daughter was going to art college and had seen a lot of the films I'd produced. She said to her mum, "You should speak to him."

So I brought her back to the house, back to the pool. I essentially reunited her with Tom Keylock, her former lover, whom she hadn't seen since the inquest in 1969, and videotaped that. I really tried to push her back as far as I could into her memory. And here's what was interesting, and why I was able to go forward with the film. What Anna told me, which was very much from Brian's perspective, because she was with Brian most of the day, and what Janet told me, which was very much from Frank's perspective because she was with Frank most of the day, were eerily similar. They had hardly spoken to each other then, and had no reason to speak to each other since then. Yet they both spoke of the night in similar terms. There was no talk of big parties, no talk of cars coming and going, no talk of a group of people around the pool. [Elements mentioned in the various conspiracy theories.] Both girls only remember the characters that were there; both had a very clear memory of a calm, still night.

Anna told me what she hadn't told the police, which was that Brian had fired Frank that morning. Janet told me what she hadn't told the police, which was that Frank had got her very drunk, had put something strange in the food, had tried to sexually molest her, and was shaking so hard when he came back to the house [from the pool, where he had been alone with Jones] that he couldn't light a cigarette. All of these lovely details which I was able to put in my film, and which are in none of the books and none of the police statements.

It was at the point that I realized there was really a film here, with the two women. Neither of them were rock 'n' roll chicks. Anna went back to Stockholm and is now a businesswoman who runs a fashionable boutique. Janet is a handsome-looking woman in her 50s who looks 10 years younger. She didn't really drink, she never smoked, she didn't take drugs. I didn't want to rely on the Anita Pallenberg, Marianne Faithfull kind of memory of that time, because to be honest, it's wrong. I'm choosing to trust the memories of two women who were actually there, far more than the vague ideas of people who weren't there.

Even today, the Brian Jones fan club claims it was a conspiracy by all of them, that Frank and Tom and Anna and Janet all got together and plotted this murder of Brian in order to get his money or some such. It's crazy if you meet these people; or certainly if you meet Janet and Anna. They'd never agree on which bus to get to Piccadilly Circus. They hated each other then, and they certainly don't have much to say to each other now.

In terms of the murder-mystery aspect of this movie, that was crucial. The other thing, I suppose, was a distant memory of being a kid growing up in the world of the Stones. I'm still a Rolling Stones fan; if you put any of their hits on, I'll immediately remember where I was and what aspects of growing up I was going through at the time. But I want to remind people that at the heart of the Rolling Stones there was this rebellious, anarchic character who would push the boundaries, who would experiment in every which way possible, and that guy was Brian Jones.

In 1967, Brian Jones went to the Monterey Pop Festival to reintroduce Jimi Hendrix to America. Brian is wearing all his incredible robes and beads and gold lamé -- I mean, he looks like Sun Ra. He says, "This is my friend Jimi Hendrix," and everyone is in awe. Brian Jones has come to introduce this guy, he must be great! He's sitting there with Nico and Janis Joplin, and you're kind of going, "It doesn't get much cooler than this." Your best friend is Jimi Hendrix, and you're hanging out with Nico and Janis Joplin! He was royalty, and now he's not even a distant memory. That spurred me on. How did Mick and Keith forget that Brian existed? How did we all forget?

"Stoned" opens March 24 in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco; March 31 in San Diego and Seattle; April 7 in Washington; April 14 in Boston and Minneapolis; and April 28 in Atlanta and St. Louis, with more cities to follow.

"L'Enfant": A child sold, a life halfway redeemed, a society hanging in the balance

I don't have much space, so let's not mince words: "L'Enfant," the latest work by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is one of the greatest films of recent years. Even as it casts the decaying social democracy of the "new Europe" in a cheerless light, it proves that the great tradition of European filmmaking is very much alive. Film scholars may see the DNA of Bergman and Bresson and Italian neorealism here; ordinary viewers -- that handful of you still willing to risk a dramatic film in a foreign language, with no choreographed action scenes -- will see a prodigiously moving and powerful human story.

The Dardennes work almost entirely in close-up, with the focus on the faces, and intimate body language, of their characters. In this case, that means Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and Sonia (Déborah François), a handsome, blond couple who in other circumstances could be winning protagonists of a romantic comedy. We're in the neighboring port cities of Liège and Seraing in Belgium, but nothing in the film gives that away. Feckless mop-top Bruno and lovely, vivacious Sonia dominate the foreground of virtually every scene -- both actors illuminate the screen -- and the background is amorphous, anonymous, gray-skied northern Europe. Change a few irrelevant details, and we could be in Denmark, Germany, Holland, Britain, Poland or a half-dozen other countries.

Bruno's an irresponsible lowlife -- a thief, panhandler and all-around hustler -- but there's a sweetness and optimism about him, utterly unjustified as it may be. He hasn't even shown up at the hospital to see Sonia and her new baby, Jimmy, but despite the obvious danger signs we can halfway see why she loves him. When he has money, he pretty much flings it at Sonia and Jimmy, buying leather jackets and high-end baby carriages, and even throwing away 200 euros (on which they could probably all eat for a week) to joyride in a rented convertible.

Then Bruno does something unthinkable and unimaginable. If you've read anything about "L'Enfant" (which won last year's Palme d'Or at Cannes) you already know what that is, and even if you haven't you can probably guess. Suffice it to say that one of Bruno's criminal contacts suggests to him that if he and Sonia aren't up to raising a kid, other people -- nice people! rich people! -- will pay handsomely to do so.

Unlike "Tsotsi" -- which, fine as it is, isn't in the same league -- "L'Enfant" doesn't rise or fall with the question of what will become of little Jimmy, who is too valuable a commodity to be placed in serious danger. In fact, the baby is essentially a side issue here. The real subject of "L'Enfant" is not Jimmy but Bruno. Has he injured his son in any way? That's debatable. But he has grievously wounded Sonia, and finally forced her to see him as he is, instead of as she wishes he were.

The Dardennes (whose other films include "La Promesse," "Rosetta" and "The Son") never try to psychoanalyze Bruno, or to explain precisely what combination of greed, callousness and cowardice drives him to do what he does. That may frustrate some viewers, but I suspect the point is that Bruno doesn't understand his own behavior. While the title of the film is deliberately ambiguous, I don't think it refers to Jimmy.

Getting Jimmy back turns out to be the easy part. The great challenge of "L'Enfant" is whether Bruno can come to grips with his own actions, and whether we, or Sonia, or he himself, can ever forgive him for what he has done. Deeply in debt to gangsters and rejected by Sonia, Bruno commits a harrowing crime that almost turns out worse than the previous one. But in the universe of the Dardennes, with its faint undertones of Christian mysticism, every sinner has a chance for redemption. Comparisons to Dostoevski's "Crime and Punishment" come cheap; it must be the most name-checked literary classic in contemporary cinema. "L'Enfant" has the purity and fire of the original, and a clarity of vision almost unseen in the movies these days.

Opens March 24 in New York and Los Angeles, with other cities to follow.

"The Beauty Academy of Kabul": Healing the women of Afghanistan, one perm at a time

Liz Mermin's documentary "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" is a spiny, puzzling and highly entertaining film, and whatever you go into it thinking, you're likely to come out thinking something else. Mermin spent 10 weeks in Afghanistan, filming the efforts of a group of women in the American beauty business -- some of them Afghan émigrés -- to launch a professional-grade beauty school in Kabul, shortly after the fall of the Taliban.

If you think that sounds like a nutty idea, you're not alone. As Mermin explains over coffee in her Manhattan neighborhood, she saw a tiny item in the New York Times about the planned beauty school in September of 2002, and immediately sensed the opportunity for a film. "My first reaction was, this is just so crazy -- how could this be real?" she recalls. "My second reaction was, how could this not be amazing? This was clearly going to work people up, and I like films that get people talking."

Mermin's first feature film, "On Hostile Ground," was about the increasingly difficult situation faced by abortion providers in the United States; she refers to herself without hesitation as a feminist filmmaker, and describes her politics as "very far left." And while she's an attractive woman with dark ringlets and silver jewelry, she does not appear to be a major consumer of conventional beauty products. Given all that, "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" is a nonjudgmental and ultimately quite sympathetic account of what at first appears a bizarre and misguided adventure.

The film assembles a kooky and continually surprising cast of characters, from the Afghan women who virtually beat down the new beauty school's doors to the émigré women, haunted by their return to an almost unrecognizable country, to the white Western fashionistas whose reasons for being there never seem entirely clear. How you feel about this last group of American and British women -- one of them a flame-haired loudmouth from small-town Michigan who becomes the film's unlikely heroine -- will largely determine whether you view the Kabul beauty academy as inspirational or ludicrous.

When Mermin met some of the Afghan-born hairdressers in the U.S., many of them educated professionals who had turned to the beauty business because their English was poor, she began to see the whole project differently. "They told me that hairdressing had literally saved their lives. For them, it's a very practical way of helping people, of creating bonds and connections, of forging communities of women. I realized I had to be a little less dismissive."

In fact, it would require both a heart of stone and an ironclad ideological blind spot not to be moved by the Afghan women in Mermin's film, who embrace the Kabul beauty school as an oasis of joy and pleasure -- not to mention economic opportunity -- in lives that have had precious little of those commodities. As Mermin discovered, many Afghan women had clandestine beauty salons in their homes under the ultra-repressive Taliban regime, and after the U.S. invasion they were eager to go legit.

"You know, when I went there, I fully expected that the women would be traumatized and beaten down," Mermin says. "Kabul is not a cheerful city. It's very gray, no one wears colors, much of the place has been bombed into rubble. And at first the Afghan women who came to the school were very restrained, very nervous, very inward. Two weeks in, I realized that was all a facade. I was blown away by how outgoing and inquisitive they were, how outspoken, how lively. They flirted outrageously with any men that were around; they laughed constantly. It was a total transformation."

In fact, the real contrast in Mermin's film is between the Afghan women who create this atmosphere of frivolity and joy and the white Western instructors -- mostly products of the New Age-informed, painfully self-aware New York fashion world -- who view the whole project with intense seriousness. These Western women deliver grave lectures about meditation and massage techniques, or about the sacred mission of hairdressers to "heal Afghanistan, one woman at a time," blissfully unaware of the ruined society around them, where a few years earlier women were beaten with clubs or set on fire for minor or imaginary moral transgressions.

On the other hand, hey, if hairdressing can bring some delight into the lives of Afghan women, maybe it really is healing them. Why the hell not? Mermin reports that some film-festival audiences have been angry with her for not exposing the whole beauty-school project as an American propaganda ploy, or an ideological tool of the cosmetics industry. You can certainly read "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" in those terms if you care to, but it's a much more complicated and interesting story than that suggests. On one hand, it's a half-comic chronicle of cultural collision and misunderstanding, and on the other it's a fable about the irrepressible human desire to have fun and look fabulous, even in the most dire circumstances.

Mermin admits that the prevalence of "over-the-top, self-aggrandizing healing-speak" among the Western instructors sometimes made her skin crawl. On the other hand, it apparently motivated them to travel halfway around the world, to a bombed-out city, to do something tangible for women who lived there. "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" is an intriguing and marvelously open-minded film, in the finest documentary tradition, that should, as Mermin says, get people talking. Cynical urban viewers may find themselves annoyed or otherwise discombobulated in places, but Mermin says that when she screened the film for a group of beauty-school students in Tennessee, they were reduced to tears. "If people respond that way to the material," she says, "my personal reaction really doesn't matter."

"The Beauty Academy of Kabul" opens March 24 in New York; April 7 in Santa Fe, N.M., and Washington; April 14 in Chicago; April 21 in Boston and Hartford, Conn.; April 28 in Los Angeles and Seattle; and May 5 in Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Santa Cruz, Calif., with other cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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