(2007 Bluray version)
Chronologically, 1970 sat right on the cusp not just between two decades but straddled two different eras in feel and outlook. There was the experimental counter-culture late ‘60s where a new generation of Swinging London began segueing into trying mind-altering natural and chemical substances, influencing not just their minds but their music and other arts. The early ‘70s saw British and Hollywood cinema reflecting a more cynical, bitter edge in urban crime films like GET CARTER and VILLAIN. In 1970, a unique film was released that actually combined the two influences into essentially a psychedelic gangster film and that is part of its deserved special place in the blog. We are talking about the brilliant PERFORMANCE.
This film was the brain-child of two visionary directors: Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg. Cammell had spent a lot of time on the left bank of Paris in the ‘60s and was exceptionally well-read. His artistic influences on the film include all the literary references to Artaud, Camus and especially Borges. Nic Roeg was the stunningly original cinematographer turned director with an eye for original visuals and colours. They created a very harmonious partnership, each focusing on the actors and the look of the film respectively. Warner Brothers financed the film with producer Sanford Lieberson (also Cammell’s agent) becoming a vital third wheel in the project. Another influence was David Litvinoff, credited as dialogue coach, who had rubbed shoulders with the seamier side of London night-life and added verisimilitude to the criminal underworld element. Part of the influence on Mick Jagger to do the film was Litvinoff who had been allegedly a former lover of Ronnie Kray and was one of many of the Stones’s entourage to be both gay, psychotically violent and part of the crime underworld. Small wonder that these creative and background influences caused Jagger to give the fastest ‘Yes’ response to the film offer of any in his career so far.
The plot of PERFORMANCE on the surface could be summed up fairly simply. An East End gangster, Chas, tangles with the business dealings of an old criminal friend Maddocks that he’s suggested to have had a bisexual relationship with in the past. The power struggle ends with Chaz killing Maddocks and needing to go on the run without protection - since his boss Harry Flowers had forbidden Chas to get involved with Maddocks’ operations. Knowing his life is now in danger, Chas overhears in a café that a room is going free, and with the contact information hides out in the decadent city home of retired rock star Turner (Jagger) and his two female friends. Here, he undergoes mental and physical perceptual challenges through the temptations of these bohemian types, until the ambiguous ending where he or possibly Turner may have given himself up to his former gangland people.
There are many elements that bend the mind and this straight-forward sounding story right from the start. The casting alone was innovative and played with audiences’ expectations up-front. No-one would ever have conceived of upper middle-class James ‘THE SERVANT’ Fox playing the violent, intimidating working-class thug Chas. This after all is a vicious blue-collar shagger, intimidator and all round low-life who loves the brutality and trashy trappings of his life. However, after two to three months of method research living in South London and accent help from real East Ender Johnny Shannon (rewarded by being cast as Harry Flowers – terrific for a non-actor), Fox emerged with the accent, the attitude and a toned physique honed from boxing training. It’s a transformational portrayal every bit as impressive as De Niro’s preparation for RAGING BULL – and also of suave Ben Kingsley’s equally career-enhancing gangster turn as the foul-mouthed Don Logan in SEXY BEAST.
Unfortunately for Fox, the identity-challenging role of Chas came at a point where he was already mentally fragile from the recent death of his father and his involvement in the seamier side of showbiz life. Whilst immersing oneself in a complex role utterly different to one’s life can be of help in dark times, it seems the psychedelic role-playing of the Powis Square house scenes pushed Fox over the edge. He subsequently left the profession for nine years and immersed himself in a religious group called the Navigators.
More accustomed to the bombardment of Cammell’s artsy and trippy world was Mick Jagger, who had never acted before and fit like a glove into the part of Turner. Who better to essay the role of a famous decadent rock star enjoying the wealth and luxury of time to indulge psychotropic substances and languid philosophising? Actually, Mick was understandably nervous in his first movie acting role, so Lieberson arranged to shoot an isolated sequence of him alone to ease him gradually into the unfamiliar technical world of film-making. This is the spray-painting scene which I’ll discuss later. Jagger needn’t have worried. He almost doesn’t seem to be acting as Turner; his performance is so spontaneous and seemingly art-’less’ that it’s easy to think the directors simply recorded him doing whatever he felt like. He is at his most beguilingly androgynous with his long hair, sensuous lips and coquettish manner. Turner seduces and evades like Tim Curry’s Frank N Furter in ROCKY HORROR, quoting Borges and Burroughs: “Everything is permitted”; lounging on his bed, filming randomly on his 8mm camera – a living existentialist. Aparently, Mick based Turner not so much on himself but channelling the intoxicating combination of bandmates Brian Jones and Keith Richards for the seductiveness and devilment in turn. If the part had been played by anyone not from the rock music world, it might have been a satirical send-up - this would have damaged the hypnotic alternate reality the housemates embody. Mick inhabits that world credibly, crucial to Chas willingly permitting the ‘everything’ to be done to his self-image.
A stand-out scene of Mick in particular is the ‘Memo to Turner’ pop video, for it became the first one ever shot, making stylish use of lighting by Roeg and an oddly striking gelled-hair gangster look for Jagger that’s almost unrecognisable. It also neatly allows us to see the thread emerging of the strange shape-shifting between Turner and Chas that occupies much of the last act.
Turner’s friends are played by three interesting performers. Laraine Wickens is their cheeky cockney child maid Lorraine. I must admit I thought she was a boy when I saw her scenes, which in her little dresses would somehow have still fitted this off-beat pack. Anita Pallenberg and Michele Breton are the free-flowing other part of Turner’s menage-a-trois, eating magic mushrooms, taking baths and penetrating Chas’s psyche with sex and psylocibin. They are as responsible as Turner for inducing Chas to gradually morph from his hard East End persona and the be-wigged feminine made-up image he adopts. Pallenberg in real-life had made her own shift, segued from the domestic violence of being with Jones to a more nourishing relationship with Richards. Keith was filled with jealous paranoia during the filming, convinced that Jagger might be having sex for real with his new lady. A teasing reference to Stones’ debauchery mythology can also be seen in the Mars Bars on the door-step delivered along with the morning milk.
There are two other ingredients that make PERFORMANCE a hugely appealing cult hit. One is the ground-breaking editing - especially in the opening. This was partly caused by necessity. After delivering a finished print to Warner Brothers that Cammell, Roeg and Lieberson were happy with, the studio demanded that the violence be toned down and that Jagger be introduced earlier. Liberson and Roeg had to leave to go on to other projects (notably WALKABOUT for Roeg), leaving Cammell to ask Frank Mazzola to cut a new version obeying the notes. This he did to sensational effect, in style ironically very much akin to Roeg’s later work. The film starts with cross-cutting between a Rolls Royce driving along a country lane, Chas at his menacing work and also fleeting glimpses of Turner spray-painting his intial ‘T’ on a wall at home. This was a hint of the aforementioned solo scene of Jagger, and an innovative editing solution that ramped forward his intro to the plot. It’s inexplicable but tantalising nonetheless. An extra layer of disorientation on top is the over-laying of unsettling Moog synthesizer effects. PERFORMANCE was the first film to use this brand new music technology in experimenting with unearthly atmospheric mood enhancement.
The other attractive aspect to the film that adds to its cultish power is the ambiguity of the ending. Jettisoning the original script second half that involved a more mundane drug-bust (echoing the real-life famous Redlands one that affected the Stones), the free-wheeling descent into freak-out image-breaking comes down to earth briefly as Chas’s gangland cohorts arrive to escort him to execution. Chas suddenly comes to a conscious resolve and shoots someone (who may be Breton), the bullet blasting surreally through the body to finally shatter an image of the author Borges, a major influence on Cammell’s own mind. We then witness what looks like a shot Turner slumped in the broom cupboard, and repeated teasing shots from behind of what may be the rock star and Chas’s wigged and short-haired selves walking away down the street. Flowers smugly welcomes whom he believes to be Chas into his car. As they drive away, we catch sight that unbeknownst to him it is Turner in Chas’s red wig that he’s captured, looking enigmatically through the back window. His line “Time for a change” haunts us with its trippy hint of identity-swap, merging the faces of he and his new friend.
A hotly-debated denouement is a priceless way to ensure a film’s longevity. Not that PERFORMANCE needs it to cap a daring, exciting and strangely compelling movie. Rap music fans might recognise the posterity of sound-bites from the quotable dialogue (and other Roeg nods) in Big Audio Dynamite’s similarly innovative ‘80s hit "E=MC2" – lines such as “You’re Jack the laaaad” and “You know, I don’t think I’m gonna let you stay in the film business...”
It’s regarded by some as the greatest British gangster film ever. I don’t know about that; GET CARTER and THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY are also strong contenders. I certainly feel though that PERFORMANCE is the only great one that also manages to be more. It transcends the genre to be the only psychedelic counter-culture post 1960s classic as well. Who can beat that?