Back to bass-ics with the Rolling Stones
They rarely make a documentary about the bass player, and “The Quiet One” is a reminder why. The movie is congenial, self-effacing, and reasonably dull, and since it promises an inside look at 30 years of being a Rolling Stone, that has to be considered a disappointment. On the other hand, Oliver Murray’s film about the life and times of Bill Wyman offers proof that even average blokes can be rock stars, and maybe more of them than we think.
“The Quiet One” is made very much with the participation of Wyman himself, who until the final minutes is glimpsed as a shadowy, silver-haired figure in a room full of memories. The Stones bassist was the unofficial collector-historian of the group, and what in a non-famous person might be considered hoarding is in this case the maintaining of a valued archive. If only the movie did more with it.
Wyman narrates his life story on the soundtrack, with occasional third-party comments from colleagues like Eric Clapton and an elderly-sounding Charlie Watts. Born Bill Perks (he later took the last name of an admired army buddy), Wyman grew up poor in South London, with parents who discouraged any aim higher than leaving school early and learning a trade.
You sense a real bitterness behind Wyman’s polite recollections of his early life, and you realize, too, how explosive the arrival of Elvis and American rock and R&B must have sounded to a generation of British kids living in angry, repressed homes. Bill picked up a bass, started a band, fell in with a crew of art-school blues fanatics, and, to his own astonishment, found himself in a hit group that became a legendary one.
He was a critical supporting pillar rather than a star, as any bassist who isn’t Paul McCartney tends to be. Don’t come to “The Quiet One” for insights on the Stones legend, though, or the niceties of rhythm sections or even much about Mick and Keith and dear, departed Brian Jones, all of whom remain in the background of the story and the footage. (Jagger and Richards are conspicuously absent on the soundtrack.)
There’s surprisingly little on what Wyman brought to the group as a musician as well. No, he wasn’t a virtuoso (and maybe that chafed when guitarist Mick Taylor, who was one, joined the group after Jones’s death), but the plainspoken anchor of his bass playing allowed the others to soar, and there’s an underappreciated wit to his fretwork on, say, “Dead Flowers” that gives that song a crucial sardonic bounce. Plus, the slide into pure chaos at the end of “19th Nervous Breakdown” is all Wyman’s.
An inveterate gadget-head, Wyman early on started toting a 16mm camera everywhere he went, which means he’s sitting on a Scrooge McDuck mountain of insider Stonesiana. Murray gives us quite a bit of it but in shards and snippets, as background to the voiceovers, rather than treating them like the primary sources they actually are.
There are exceptions, especially that electrifying sequence of Jagger singing Johnny Winters’s “I’m Yours and I’m Here” amid a halo of white butterflies at the Hyde Park memorial concert for Jones. (Which Wyman probably didn’t shoot.) Mostly we get a sense of how out of the debauched loop Bill may have been. He didn’t drink or take drugs (he says) and his self-admitted “sex addiction” to Stones groupies is presented with the mild embarrassment of a hungry man at a buffet.
Nor does Wyman have anything terribly original to say, even if he says it from the heart. On Swinging London: “It was like a hurricane and we were in the middle of it.” On Altamont: “It was the death of the ’60s.” The most telling parts of “The Quiet One” reveal Wyman’s self-effacing hero worship of others: his friendships with writer James Baldwin and painter Marc Chagall, his gigging with blues legends Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and his turning down a chance to record with Ray Charles because, in his words, “I’m not good enough.”
There’s a subject for a movie: a man who is given the keys to the kingdom and never feels he has earned them. Perhaps that’s why Wyman did the sensible, non-rock-star thing and retired in 1989. And yet he still sits in that Xanadu of Stones memorabilia. If there’s a Rosebud buried there, “The Quiet One” doesn’t find it.
THE QUIET ONE
Written and directed by Oliver Murray. Starring Bill Wyman and the Rolling Stones. At Kendall Square. 98 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: Sober discussions of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll)