Throughout most of The Quiet One – a documentary based on Bill Wyman’s memories and his voluminous archive of film, photographs and audio – we see him in the present day sitting at a computer, back to the camera. Occasionally we get a glimpse of profile, but it’s only at the end that we see him full-face, talking directly to us.
Far from his famous days as The Rolling Stones’ bass player, Wyman is now an 82-year-old gray-haired man, who weeps as he tells the story of his encounter with his idol, Ray Charles. Charles invited Wyman to play on a recording, and Wyman turned him down. He chokes up as he says, “I’m not good enough.”
That reveal is important, and not a spoiler, because the voice we’ve been hearing throughout is that of the sentimental old man at the end. As he looks back, Wyman puts the rosiest and most innocuous gloss on his sometimes controversial, high-living rock-star past.
Oliver Murray, a music video director, seems to have made a devil’s deal when he took on The Quiet One. He had access to the archives and the man himself, but Wyman is consistently unreflective. To call him the quiet one is flattering. He is the dull one, at least as the film presents him.
The documentary moves chronologically, and the most interesting sections are Wyman’s memories of his childhood during World War II, layered over family photographs. He recalls running to a bomb shelter. And he talks about his horrendous parents, who made him feel unloved. His father withdrew him from school as a teenager, resentful that a working-class boy might try to rise above the station that he was born into.
Those memories are more revealing than Wyman seems to think. They resonate with his later remarks, sketchy though they are, about playing with the Stones. As he describes the bassist’s role, “Play exactly with the drummer. Don’t overdo it.” He sounds angry as he snaps. “You’re not a lead guitarist!”
His role was to lay a foundation so that Mick Jagger could jump around the stage, the embodiment of magnetism, and Keith Richards could stand out as the guitar master. All the time, Wyman played, unsmiling, in the background. It’s the rock-star version of knowing your place, a diffidence that lingers through his refusal of Ray Charles’ offer. Who turns down an invitation to play with his idol?
Some of the images from early in Wyman’s career, from his archive and elsewhere, are fun to see. When he started his first band, The Cliftons, he still looked like a 1950’s pompadour-wearing rocker. He was too poor to buy a new bass, so he made one. The footage of the early Stones is remarkable for how young Richards looks, almost unrecognisable with an unlined face.
But Wyman doesn’t say much that’s new about his life at the top, from the Stones’ beginnings to 1993, when he left the group. He admits that he probably had a sex addiction. There were so many women around, he says, and he wasn’t interested in drugs or alcohol.
The Quiet One zooms almost as quickly past the scandal that still casts a shadow on Wyman’s life. In 1989, when Wyman was 52, he married Mandy Smith, who was 18 years of age. They separated soon after. The film presents most of this episode in news footage from the time, with Wyman saying he always knew that she was the one, but “she was too young” when they met. The documentary does not mention that when they met, Smith was 13 at the time. Wyman’s present-day comment is that it was “stupid to think it could work”. Stupid is the least of it, but that’s all you’ll get from him.
When the Stones became tax exiles and moved to France in 1971, Wyman says he palled around with artists, including Marc Chagall. What in the world did they say to each other? As Wyman he tells it, Chagall told him to cut his hair because long hair was unoriginal. Wyman replied that The Stones did it first, and Chagall said OK then. The brief comments from other people don’t add much, either. There are a couple of bland lines of praise from Charlie Watts, although it’s unclear from what period, and nothing from the other Stones.
Under the circumstances, Murray did a decent job of piecing together a coherent film, with plenty of snippets of music, from Stones hits like Paint It Black to artists Wyman admires, like Muddy Waters. This makes The Quiet One watchable, as long as you pay no attention to the fraction of a life story it pretends to tell.
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