'The Quiet One': Film Review

Bent Rej/Courtesy of IFC Films
Too muted for its own good.
6/21/2019

Oliver Murray's documentary chronicles the life and career of Bill Wyman, founding member and former bassist of The Rolling Stones.

The prospect of a frank cinematic confessional by a founding member of The Rolling Stones would seem to hold the promise of being delicious fun. Such is disappointingly not the case with Oliver Murray's documentary, in which former bassist Bill Wyman relates the story of his life and career. Although it makes extensive use of the copious film footage, archival photographs and diary entries that the obsessively chronicling musician compiled over many decades, The Quiet One somehow manages to make its provocative subject matter strangely decorous.

"It's my little capsule of my life in here," the now 82-year-old, unassuming Wyman informs us about the archive where he's frequently shown huddled over a desk like a Talmudic scholar. "I thought it was important to keep a record of what was going on," he adds. In a clip from a vintage interview, his bandmate Keith Richards concurs with a grin: "If I want to know what I did in those years, I ask Bill Wyman."

Wyman's early years were not happy ones, as he felt much closer to his grandmother than to his emotionally distant parents. "I never really felt like I had a home, I really didn't," he solemnly informs us in a voiceover. His working-class father took him out of school at a young age and put him to work in a betting shop. Years later, Wyman, who was born William Perks Jr., would get revenge by changing his name. 

Ironically, the segment about Wyman's childhood proves more interesting than the rest of the film, which mainly concerns his decades-long tenure with the Stones. Wyman's narration tends toward the platitudinous, such as this declaration: "It was a special band. We could blow anyone off the stage, no matter who it was." He becomes more animated when talking about the nuts and bolts of the music, describing how he was inspired by Duck Dunn's playing after hearing Booker T. and the M.G.'s "Green Onions." "Leave space, don't fill it up," Wyman comments about his deliberately non-flashy style.

The major events in the Stones' career are touched on only briefly. He says next to nothing about the notorious Altamont concert, for instance, except to comment, "It was the death of the sixties." The film includes excerpts from his audio diaries in which he describes his exhaustion and the craziness that surrounded the band's success. It also amusingly features early photographs of the band taken by Terry O'Neill, who exclaims, "God, they looked like five prehistoric monsters!"

Anyone looking for salacious details about Wyman's brief 1989 marriage to Mandy Smith, who, at 18, was nearly three decades younger, is bound to be disappointed. Although he was relatively frank about the relationship in his memoir A Stone Alone, Wyman is circumspect here. He says that their romance was based on love, not lust, adding, "I was really stupid to ever think it would possibly work."

He's equally reticent when talking about his decision to leave the Stones after their hugely successful Steel Wheels tour. Wyman had been with the band for 31 years, but says simply, "I needed to sort out my personal life, and my future."

The doc's most powerful moment comes as a surprise toward the end. In the only scene in which he speaks directly to the camera, with his third wife, Suzanne Acosta, at his side, Wyman talks about attending a Ray Charles concert many years earlier. He was too shy to go backstage, but Charles, who had been made aware of his presence, sent word that he'd like to meet him. During their conversation, Charles asked Wyman to play on his next album. Wyman tearfully recounts how he demurred, telling Charles that he wasn't "good enough."

It's a marvelously poignant moment in which the famously stone-faced Wyman's emotions finally emerge, but it comes too late to fully redeem this otherwise frustratingly timid documentary.

Production companies: My Accomplice, Gizmo Films
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Director-screenwriter: Oliver Murray
Producers: Jamie Bick, Jason Clark, Jennifer Corcoran
Executive producers: Charlotte Arden, Dan Braun, Peter Gerard Dunphy, Ian Grenfell
Director of photography: Tom Sidell
Production designer: Sarah Kane|

Editor: Anne Perri
Music: Paul-Leonard Morgan

109 minutes