A gray-haired old man sits with his back to the camera gazing into a computer screen on a desk in what appears to be a library. He sits at the head of rows and rows of shelves laden with file drawers and boxes and tape cassettes. It’s quiet. An appropriate-enough opening for a picture titled “The Quiet One.”
But then the quiet is broken by the sound of Mick Jagger snarling “Paint It Black” and accompanying a rapid-fire jumble of Rolling Stones images. And we’re off.
Off on a tour through Stones back pages. Your tour guide: Bill Wyman, bassist, soft-spoken steady-Eddie member of “the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world.”
He’s the man in the chair. At 82, he’s the oldest member of the group, which he left in 1993 after 31 years spanning their start as a pure blues ensemble to the height of their worldwide fame.
That room is as much of a central figure in the picture as Wyman himself. It’s his archive. “A little capsule of my life” in his home, it’s packed with photos, films, tapes, notes and other memorabilia he’s diligently collected over the years. It’s the raw material mined by filmmaker Oliver Murray for this revealing documentary.
The most interesting revelations come early as Wyman, in voice-over, describes his upbringing in a rough section of London. Unloved and his musical aspirations unappreciated by his working-class parents (“I always wanted to be a musician”), he was raised for a time by his supportive grandmother.
Born in the 1930s (his bandmates were all born in the ’40s), he was a child during the Battle of Britain. In the ’50s, he served a two-year hitch in the Royal Air Force. It was, drummer Charlie Watts says in voice-over, “a different sort of upbringing” from the rest of the Stones, none of whom were in the military.
Serving in Germany in the ’50s, he heard Elvis on armed-forces radio, saw Chuck Berry duckwalking in an early rock musical and knew at once that was the life for him.
He formed a band, and because no one else wanted to play bass, he took on the job. “The low sound just filled you up,” he says.
He landed a 1962 meeting with the then newly formed Rolling Stones in a London pub. They scorned his love of rock ’n’ roll, he says. They prided themselves on being a blues band, inspired by the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. They hired him anyway.
While Jagger danced and pranced around the stage and Keith Richards and Brian Jones traded stinging guitar riffs, he and Watts underpinned the Stones sound with their rock-solid playing. He stood still. Showed little emotion.
In interviews, he said relatively little and earned the nickname “the stone face.”
They achieved liftoff in 1963. Insert footage of screaming girls storming the stage.
“It was the most exciting time of my life,” Wyman says. At the height of their fame, “it was a hurricane (and) we were in the middle of it.”
“If I want to know what I did in those years I had to ask Bill Wyman,” Keith says.
The toll of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle is discussed, chiefly and briefly as it pertains to the drugged-up decline and accidental death of Jones. Wyman says drugs held no appeal to him personally. “I have to have my feet on the ground,” he says.
There is virtually nothing in it about what inspired any of their songs or how they were produced. Marriages (Wyman has had three) are briefly alluded to.
Over the years he’s recorded some solo albums. Post-Stones, he formed his own band, Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings.
The hubbub of his Stones years now long in the past, Wyman looks back and remembers, quietly.
★★★ “The Quiet One,” a documentary directed by Oliver Murray. 108 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Opens June 28 at SIFF Film Center.