When you think about a Rolling Stones documentary, you might expect sordid details about Mick Jagger’s or Keith Richards’ drug use and rampant sexual escapades, or even the backstory behind the band’s greatest hits such as “Paint It Black” or “Gimme Shelter.” Never would you consider a film that negates all those interesting tidbits to highlight the least flamboyant and popular member of the group, Bill Wyman, the taciturn bass guitarist who documented his nearly 30-year career with the quintet. But that’s what the dull “The Quiet One” does.
In all fairness, there’s already been a number of Rolling Stones films in the past that have offered a more intimate chronicle of the band’s cultural impact and controversies that are at the very least provocative. (“Shine a Light” and “Gimme Shelter” come to mind.) So, it’s not like we need another one of those. But writer-director Oliver Murray’s attempt to piece together a captivating story — using Wyman’s personal audio and video recordings as well as old photographs, and the other band members’ interviews and studio sessions, interwoven with details of Wyman’s childhood and home life — isn’t nearly as captivating as perhaps he or Wyman may think it is.
As the film reveals, Wyman was dubbed “the Quiet One” early in his career because he didn’t share the devil-may-care attitude of some of his loudmouth, boa-wearing bandmates, some of whose eventual drug use seemed like a silly annoyance to the reticent guitarist who watched them from afar. He was often the one who blended in with the wallpaper, but he played a mean bass and helped give the Stones their classic sound.
In fact, the coolest thing about Wyman’s story is that he made a bass guitar practically from scratch when he was young and couldn’t afford to purchase one of his own to play in the band. As we watch through Regis Raffin’s animated graphics and simulated video (an awkward storytelling style incorporated throughout the film), Wyman narrates how he put the instrument together with his own bare hands.
This example of his craftiness reflects his youth in a post-war South London growing up with his disciplinarian father, William Perks, who was so cash-strapped that in 1953 he pulled his son out of school and forced him to get a job and help out with the household. (Wyman’s mother Molly gets barely a mention in the film.) Wyman says he was so frustrated at home that he left to go live with his more amiable grandmother. But after she passed away, Wyman found himself at a loss, both spiritually and professionally. According to him, his image as the odd man out dates back to these early years, when he often felt like he wasn’t like any of the other young men around him, be they collared or brick-laying.
So that’s when Wyman kind of stumbled into music because he genuinely enjoyed it, not necessarily that he wanted to be a star. But once he did, one of the first things he did was to shed his father’s last name and distance himself from his younger identity. To hear him tell it, he just fell into the Stones despite then-current bandmates’ initially cold reception of him. But he was undoubtedly talented, so that was that.
Because Wyman himself has such a flat, dry air to him — reflected in the way he speaks — most of his story is unraveled in a matter-of-fact manner that adds to the film’s overall blandness. There’s no thrill, no visceral heartbreak, no fist-pumping revelation. This is just a guy telling you about himself, growing up, growing old, and navigating the Stones’ massive celebrity. Nothing about “The Quiet One” is particularly exciting or gives you any sense of fulfillment — definitely nothing at the level for which the Rolling Stones are known.
Not even when Wyman briefly discusses his short-lived marriage to “teenage bride” (as the tabloids called her) Mandy Smith, which he says he “knew wouldn’t work” or reflects on the tragic deaths of several audience members at the band’s infamous 1969 Altamont Free Concert. Of the latter, he said, “I don’t like to talk about that much.” These are both wildly provocative moments in his story that are reduced to footnotes.
Surprisingly, given how long he’s walked around with a video camera as well as a regular camera (the group also had their own biographical photographer who followed them around), Wyman himself isn’t much of a storyteller. And Murray doesn’t really offer any assistance on his end either. “The Quiet One” wrongly assumes its audience will feel like a sense of elation as they get to know Wyman more personally. But beneath his enigmatic image, there isn’t much said that we couldn’t have found out on his Wikipedia page. (Unless you consider his heartfelt adoration for idols like Ray Charles, which is sweet only because you can actually hear the dispassionate musician smiling through his narration.)
Not everything should be turned into a movie — certainly not the recorded diary entries of an aging rock star who can barely find elements in his story that are worth sharing with the world.