The Quiet One, a cinematic memoir about bassist Bill Wyman, founding member of The Rolling Stones, directed by Oliver Murray, played at Tribeca Film Festival and is set to start a theatrical run in June. It’s far from the typical music documentary. Based on Wyman’s immense, personal archive of film, photographs and audio, including new voice-over commentary by Wyman himself, Murray (previously a music video director) had the unenviable task of making a documentary that would offer something fresh to fans or insightful to music historians, while working under the employ of the notoriously private man-of-few-words. The film is oddly fascinating for all the reasons it aims not to be – for the things it doesn’t say, for the ways in which it is not penetrating or thoughtful, and how it skims over controversy. It depicts a rather sad and unsatisfying culmination to a long career and mysterious life. It portrays a man searching through the rubble of his memorabilia, still unable to make sense of the emptiness and alienation that defined him as the famously “stone-faced” member of The Stones.
Nonetheless, there is reason to watch, if you are someone who can appreciate the philosophical absurdity and existential pathos of Samuel Beckett-style stories. Watching Wyman watch his younger self and listening to him to comment on his former comments, this documentary becomes a story about the nature of reminiscence and a man struggling with his legacy as much as it is a guided, behind-the-scenes tour of the life of a rock star. Come for the music, stay for the irony.
It’s what he doesn’t play — what he leaves out…
— Eric Clapton
The setting of this movie is bizarrely similar to the setting of Samuel Beckett’s famous play, Krapp’s Last Tape, and the thematic parallels are hard to ignore. In Beckett’s play, the set consists of a desk and a chair, with an overhead light, and on the desk is a reel-to-reel tape recorder, microphone, and ledger. Around the desk are boxes filled with an archive of recorded tapes. Seated at the desk is an old man with grey hair. Now, take a look at the opening shot of The Quiet One:
In the play, the ensuing action discloses that Krapp is a man who has chronicled every aspect of his life since he was 24 years old. He has created annual audio tapes to record his impressions of the previous year’s important events, and then cataloged each tape’s number and contents in a ledger, which he keeps locked in his desk. Each year on his birthday, he listens to one of his former tapes before recording his new one.
The play depicts Krapp listening to a tape from 30 years ago, which references and derisively comments on a previous tape, and the elderly Krapp replays and comments on them both, in real time, before recording this year’s tape. He is essentially in discussion with his former selves and trying to come to terms with his past.
At the conclusion of the play, the older Krapp sits listening as his younger self ponders the loss of his best years, saying “but I wouldn’t want them back.” And then the tape runs out. The plays ends in silence with Krapp staring blankly into space.
The Quiet One opens with Bill Wyman in his basement, present day, sitting at a desk with his back to the camera, light shining down from above him. He speaks to the sound technician beside him, who is holding a mic as Wyman records his backward-looking commentary on his life. There is a computer on his desk, and later a reel-to-reel tape recorder. There is a detailed diary and ledger that he often references. He is surrounded by stacks of old tapes and archival materials from the enormous collection he created over his lifetime. Except for the computer, it’s almost the identical setting to Krapp’s Last Tape (written in 1958).
To help make the point that this is a film about a man and his recorded memories, a montage of old black-and white film footage is intercut with images of stacked film cases, cameras, and audio equipment, all played against the dark Stones song, “Paint it Black” (written by Wyman). Cut to silence and a long slow scan of the rows and rows of archival material and memorabilia that fill Bill’s basement. If not such a capacious space, it would look like a hoarder’s house. Finally, we hear Wyman say, “People always ask me why I collected things.”
This is an odd reminder of a similar moment in another TFF2019 archival-themed documentary, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, when Marion’s son says, “People always ask me why she did it. To understand that, you need to know my mother.” And that leads us into the strange story of that hoarder/archivist – an African American ex-librarian who started her compulsive collecting in 1979, amassing over 70,000 VHS tapes over 30 years, and is even more a mystery than Wyman. But the two are perhaps not as different from each other as they might seem.
Both were born poor, had bitter childhoods strongly influenced by World War II, which left them suspicious of the world, with a strong need for privacy. Both felt compelled to keep a record of “the truth.” During the course of this movie, we hear one of Wyman’s bandmates recall that “We argued about what exactly happened, but Bill was probably right because he has all the fuckin’ records.”
Wyman says “I always thought it was important to keep a record of what was going on. It started when I was a little boy, during the war. Whenever I came in contact with something that I could call mine, I wanted to save it – collect it.” His recollections of his childhood during WWII, his combative relationship with his father, and his being mostly raised by his grandmother, are portrayed through a series of old family photos and provide the most interesting and insightful moments in the film. We learn that Wyman grew up feeling “pushed aside all the time,” lonely and unloved. We hear Wyman tell how he switched from playing guitar to bass because no one else would do it and it was his way into a band, and that he was too poor to buy a new bass, so he made his own. But it’s the older Wyman who tells these childhood stories, and his resentment seems to have festered over the years, rather than subsided.
Wyman then looks back at himself a bit older, now in his late twenties and trying to perfect his technique on the bass. As if Samuel Beckett had scripted his words, Wyman expresses a disturbing contempt for himself. “Leave space! Don’t be busy! Don’t overdo it! You’re not the fuckin’ lead guitarist!” he barks at himself. Later in the film, Eric Clapton will praise Wyman, saying “something about Bill’s bass… it was so contained and so precise. It’s what he doesn’t play – what he leaves out that marks his brilliance.” I doubt that either Wyman or Murray intended that praise to sound as sad as it felt, but it sure seemed to me like brilliance born of self-loathing – the kind of personal pain that Krapp would be forced to relive on one of his tapes.
Wyman says playing with The Rolling Stones was the most exciting time of his life. He also talks about resisting the cult-like mania over The Beatles – how he wanted to be taken seriously and truly appreciated. He says he avoided the press because it was “too show-biz,” and minutes later we see a memorabilia montage that includes newspaper clippings of his career. We hear him talk about the hundreds of women he had – more than Mick Jagger. We hear him talk about the thrill of playing live for half a million people. We see him living a lavish rock-star lifestyle. Later he says he plays for himself and doesn’t like to think of himself as famous. At another point, he speaks of an emptiness he feels that terrifies him.
Clearly, each of these moments are on different “tapes” from his life – experienced at different times. The tapes and multiple selves show us vividly how our identities and self-understanding are constructed through language and narrative, and that those narratives are always changing, which raises the issue of the paradox that we are both one person and many persons as we develop across time. The challenge, in terms of modern psychology, is to integrate those multiple selves, those differing attitudes and feelings, as we grow and change. But in this movie, we and Wyman are confronted by his different voices that often feel disconnected from each other.
Yet Murray’s movie seems completely unaware of any sense that the audience is viewing past events through multiple sets of Wyman’s eyes. Murray’s story is strictly chronological and plods ahead with old footage and bland, mostly non-reflective narration by Wyman. Still, it’s hard for viewers not to see the layers of memory and changing perspectives stacking up on each other, whether Wyman or Murray are conscious of it or not. Certainly, the Wyman we see touring the United States for the first time, and reveling in the band’s new-found stardom – the young man who is still insisting that they are a blues band, not a rock band, is a different man than the one who sees his bandmate and close friend, Brian Jones, die from a drug overdose or four fans die at a Stones concert at Altamont. And then there is an entirely different Wyman who left The Stones and went solo with a semi-hit Euro-pop song, “(Si Si) Je Suis un Rock Star.” No mention of any problems between Wyman and the rest of The Stones exists in this film.
There is one shot in the movie of a pinned butterfly in a frame…
Here’s just an odd tidbit that is not at all included in the movie:
In 2005, The Rolling Stones released Rarities 1971-2003. The album features a selection of rare and obscure material recorded between 1971 and 2003. The album cover shows Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts. But the original photo was taken during The Stones’ 1978 music video for the song “Respectable.” And remember that Bill Wyman was part of The Rolling Stones until 1992. Yet, Wyman is missing from the album cover. His image was digitally removed, but you can still see his bass cable hanging between Mick Jagger’s microphone stand and guitar. What’s up with that? And how did or does Wyman feel about that? No telling.
At one point, Wyman admits he “probably had a sex addiction,” but seems to justify it by reminding us that he avoided drugs, unlike his bandmates, reporting that “I felt lonely and the girls offered affection.” Wyman gives small mention to his controversial marriage to Mandy Smith when he was 52 and she was 18 – a scandal so dramatic that it almost prevented this film from being released, due to public outrage. But his nonchalance seems less an evasion and more a genuine lack of appreciation for the significance of the subject. The documentary never does mention that Smith was only 13 years old when the relationship began, and Wyman casually remarks that “it was stupid to think it could work,” because “she was too young.” Stupid.
If you want to hear raw, self-searching of Wyman’s psyche, you won’t find it here. And you have to wait till later to learn of his next marriage. For the audience, this movie sometimes feels like we’re trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle from all blank pieces.
Once we get deeper into the story of Krapp’s Last Tape, we learn that our solo character had intended to surprise himself with memories kept “fresh” on tape, but there are few surprises to be found. Krapp worked as a professional writer, so he created carefully phrased speeches on his tapes, recorded solely for his own benefit, and they ring hollow across the gulf of time. Much the same can be said of Wyman’s tapes. He basically shot his own fan footage; there is nothing probing or incisive in his archives, and nothing much exciting or truly new either. Wyman was not just the quiet one; he seemed to be the boring one, too. His archive is simply not special. There is one shot in the movie of a pinned butterfly in a frame, from which the camera slowly pulls out to reveal the broader expanse of Wyman’s archives, and that unintentionally eerie moment may be one of the most telling.
So, if not the imagery itself, then this movie needs some excellent narration to make it work, and Wyman is not the guy for that. In fact, it may be most interesting how excessively detached he is from his past experiences. His lack of expression of joy or exhilaration or shock or regret about almost everything is notable. The boy who felt pushed aside as a child seems to still feel disassociated from most of his memories. The main emotion we get from Wyman is weariness.
My favorite part of the film was the Super-8 personal movies that Wyman took during their early concert tours in the U.S. – road trip and highway footage taken from the tour bus. It’s America-on-the-road through the eyes of young Englishmen seeing the landscape for the first time. I mention that because despite my general disappointment, there are actually several bits of nifty unseen footage or photos, especially from the early days of The Stones’ stardom.
Between the archival show-and-tell segments, the documentary repeatedly returns to the Krapp’s Last Tape scene, with Wyman at his desk, personally handling the photos or cassette tapes or film reels. We see him listening to or watching tapes from his earlier life, while he also records a new tape, commenting from his place in time now, as an old man. These breaks in the story continually remind us that there is no consistent narrative tale being told; it’s a scrapbook. And that adds to the self-consciousness of time as it intersects with memory, which when taken together are key elements of absurdism; there is a feeling of futility in Wyman’s efforts to neatly wrap up his life story. He even speaks directly about his need to “sort out my personal life” by going through these archival materials – trying to make sense of it all. He says he wants to “relive what I have experienced and put it in some sort of order.”
But here’s the problem, for Krapp and for Wyman: Our sense of identity is our comprehension of our own story, but as time goes by and as personality develops, our self-interpretation of our identity not only expands, but alters in unexpected and, at times, self-contradictory or self-erasing ways. What was once of utmost importance now is forgotten. Who we are now serves as ironic, or comic, or tragic comment on our previous selves. Meanings we have staked our worth on can crumble, and experiences we once dismissed as either irrelevant or alien can come back, against our will, to permeate our consciousness and show how deeply they have defined us. This seems to have happened to Wyman with regard to the love-of-his-life child bride, for starters. But there’s also a lot more that he needs to flesh out and/or dig into from his dim and distant memories – for the sake of a compelling movie and also for his own sake.
From the very first shot, we always see Wyman from the back, in that Beckett-like pose alone at his desk. It’s not till near the end that we see Wyman’s face and he speaks directly to camera, along with his latest wife. We see an 82-year old, grey-haired, pot-bellied man whose face is puffy and has almost no resemblance to the music icon he once was.
He’s looking for a happy ending. And Murray obliges by portraying Wyman as all comfy in his quiet retirement, with his 3rd wife and his country estate, now taking photos of butterflies and birds. But there’s a disconnect.
Here is Wyman still embedded in his assorted collection of memories from his past, lost in his separation of selves, his tapes more confusing than clarifying, while he’s concurrently making what will likely be his last tape, which so far is no better than a glossy music video (sorry, Oliver Murray), and that makes the film feel inherently sad.
The final scene we see Wyman tape is his standing with his wife, telling an old story of his dramatic encounter with his idol, Ray Charles, and how it shook him to his core to hear him play “Georgia,” live. Then we see Wyman actually shed tears as he recalls that Ray Charles said he was a fan of Wyman and invited him to play with him on an album he was recording. But Wyman turned him down – said no to recording music with his hero. “I’m not good enough,” he said, as he choked up.
(Yup, that’s the end of that story. It doesn’t get better. Wyman never did record with his hero. And no further commentary is provided.)
I didn’t make notes about exactly how The Quiet One ended. But here is how I will remember the ending: Younger Wyman questions whether it’s worth it to make any effort in life. He wonders if his best years are behind him, but he decides he would not want them back. And then the tape runs out. The movie ends with elderly Wyman staring at nothing while the tape plays only silence.
Click for a review of another documentary about a rock star — Little Girl Blue, about Janis Joplin (as compared to Art Addict, about Peggy Guggenheim.)
Click for another review by Helen Highly Literate (otherwise known as Helen Highly Irrelevant): I compare the new horror movie Us to an adaptation of an old play by Chekhov.