Silent Stone

The new documentary The Quiet One delves into the archival obsessions of Rolling Stone Bill Wyman

by Steve Murray

July 3, 2019

Featured image: Bill Wyman in the new documentary The Quiet One (images courtesy IFC Films)

For much of The Quiet One, opening July 5 at Atlanta’s Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, we only see the film’s subject from the back, a white-haired gentleman sitting at a desk in a warren of shelves crowded with tapes, files, and memorabilia. He could be a functionary in an overly art-directed Terry Gilliam movie. But in fact, it’s Bill Wyman, presiding happily over the archive he’s collected, documenting his three-plus decades as bassist and founding member of the Rolling Stones.  

The footage from that archive – the rollicking, time-capsule sounds and images – make up the engaging core of this tale of a man who stood out most by not trying to stand out. His onstage, performative stance is in keeping with his musical skill. “If you did the right thing, you don’t get noticed,” Wyman says in voiceover. “And that’s how I played. Very simple.” Veteran record producer Glyn Johns praises Wyman as the kind of musician whose strength comes from knowing what to leave out in a riff.

You might think that being the Stone least likely to act out would make Wyman an uninteresting subject for a documentary. But his modesty is compelling, even if the movie skirts around some enticing landmines. He shyly admits, as someone never fond of drinking or drugs, to possibly having been addicted to sex with the endless sea of available groupies. 

Born William George Perks, Jr., Wyman changed his name in honor of a military pal — and also to piss off his dad, a working-class south Londoner who, at best, tolerated his son’s stardom but never quite got it. Though he long ago escaped that life, Wyman marvels at the distance he’s come. “A working-class boy from south London…” he says. “It’s a strange life I’ve had.” 

He recalls being awed in the early ’60s meeting idols including Georgia native Otis Redding. “They were like gods to me,” he says, and he still seems to look at his whole, mad career from a distance. “It was like a hurricane, and we were in the middle of it.” 

One of the film’s highlights comes near the end, Wyman’s emotional display of his deep, genuine love of a fellow musician – Ray Charles, whom he considered the musician, and whom he met late in Charles’s life. Halfway through the anecdote, Wyman falters to a stop. “I can’t do it, sorry,” he apologizes, wiping his eyes and letting his third wife, Suzanne, whom he married in the same year he left the Stones, 1993, tell the rest of the story while he pulls himself together.

The Quiet One isn’t flashy or dishy; it’s driven by moments like this. The star cameos are spare but to the point. “If I want to know what I did in those years, I have to ask Bill Wyman,” Keith Richards says in his brief appearance, alluding to the “haze” of his memories from back then. Mick Jagger doesn’t turn up for a contemporary interview in the movie, being, well, Mick Jagger.

To be honest, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed The Quiet One without the vivid preponderance of material from Wyman’s archive. But even if you’re not a Stones fan – I’m largely agnostic – it’s hard by the end of the movie not to admire and even love Wyman in all his quiet poise. 

Steve Murray is an award-winning arts journalist who has written about film, theater, books, and television for a quarter century. 

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