Saturday, 29 August 2015

No.50. SUPER FLY (1972)


A signature film in the Blaxploitation canon, this dope-tastic urban crime flick from Warner Bros. is centred around Priest, (Ron O’Neal) a tough coke dealer looking to retire on one last score. We know he’s a bad-ass from the get-go as our first sight of him is snorting the white stuff using his crucifix neck chain as a spoon. Oddly, as a light-skinned brother sporting long straight hair, burners and a Zapata moustache, he resembles a Spanish nobleman or the younger musician Prince more than a black pimp. I’m not the only one to notice this. An associate provokes him with “Answer me, you white-looking-’ before Priest decks him by way of interruption. Somewhat Caucasian he may look, but there’s nothing fraudulent about how he does business.

Ron O’Neal was a Broadway actor itching to portray a cool character like Priest. He is the engine driving the plot and grabs the part by the big leather lapels, working it with gritty intensity.  He punches out key words with relish. “I ain’t givin’ you SHIT!’ he seethes at a low level shake-down artist.

Priest’s drive to make it from crime and run with the proceeds is justified in his view by the iniquity of society in not giving a black ex-con a chance as much as it is by the greed for illegal profit. He tells his girlfriend Georgia (Sheila Frazier) he anticipates making four million from a thirty kilo coke deal because his pride will not stomach “Workin’ a jive job for chump change”. There’s equally a burst of social commentary in an exchange he has with his partner Eddie (Carl Lee) about how black people are marginalised into such work by segregation of work opportunities. Eddie points out “It’s a rotten game but it’s the only one the man left us to play and that’s the stone cold truth”. There’s an attitudinal echo here of Shylock’s position in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Minority races pushed into less savoury industries see themselves as driven by economic forces and then castigated for serving a social need. (Although here unlike Renaissance Europe, the provider of drugs is selling an illegal service rather than money-lending and these crims do actually have a choice!)

The prospect of making a retirement killing is on the cards but when corrupt cops offer them a direct deal through their protection as an ongoing profitable business for both sides, its’ too tempting for Eddie to accept getting out with just a million.  What they don’t know is that their friend Scatter (Julius Harris, later memorably playing Tee Hee in LIVE AND LET DIE) has been pumped fatally full of heroin to push the police’s scummy scheme forward.

In a winning denouement for crime, when the cops apprehend Priest in the climax, after a Steve Austin style slo-mo fist fight on the docks he brazenly threatens them with a mafia hit contract taken out on them as insurance.  Controversially he gets away with it which is a guilty pleasure for the audience.

Aside from O’Neal’s bravura turn as the central character, SUPER FLY also boasts one of the most famous Blaxploitation music soundtracks courtesy of the groovy falsetto of Curtis Mayfield  - who also does a club performance of the hit song ’Pusher Man’ in the film.

With its trading in coke ‘kees’, grimy cops and hand-held foot chases, the film benefits from the dirty veracity of THE FRENCH CONNECTION. However, the backlash against Blaxploitation began with SUPER FLY’s release. Black groups like the NAACP and spokesmen such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson, sporting an impressive afro and sideburns that would have been strangely well suited to this genre, vilified it as a totally negative depiction of black men. To be fair, the movie’s portrayals are even-handed; whitey comes off no better in the role model stakes, being made up exclusively of crooked cops.  Ironically, SUPER FLY had the dubious honour of being a model, but for the trend of customising cars into ‘Pimpmobiles’ and led many gangsters and pimps into ‘pimping out’ their rides as a result of seeing it.

O’Neal defended the film in the press pointing out ‘Super Fly was made by black people in the ghetto and taken out to the monied affluent people’.

It was successful enough to spawn a sequel SUPER FLY TNT and then inexplicably a belated second sequel in 1990 (RETURN OF THE SUPERFLY) which was resoundingly swatted at the box office.

The original is serious immoral fun and occupies a spot in every fan ‘Best of Blaxploitation’ list you’ll see. 

Friday, 28 August 2015



In 1971 Frederick Forsyth had a huge bestseller with his political suspense novel THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, so it was inevitable that a Hollywood studio would want to make a film of it. It focuses on a fictional police hunt for an anonymous assassin, the Jackal in 1963 as he plots to kill French President Charles De Gaulle, employed by the secret militant faction OAS, who saw De Gaulle as betraying France over granting independence to Algeria.  It was perfect material for a Universal thriller movie.

The celebrated director Fred Zinnemann (HIGH NOON, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS) was hired and with the real locations used such as Vienna, Rome, Genoa, Nice, Paris and London, he assembled a truly European cast to bring the book’s plot to vivid life. The role of the Jackal himself was an interesting challenge. Zinnemann said: “I feel he had to be a man who could be unobtrusive…Something aristocratic about him, very English, upper-class”. Oscar-winning Edward Fox fulfilled those criteria well. He balances a ruthless precision with an affable, breezy top-drawer Englishman’s charm

The rest of the cast is led by the pleasingly contrasting double-act of Parisian Michel Lonsdale (Drax in the Bond film MOONRAKER) and a very young Derek Jacobi. Together respectively they team up like a forlorn blood-hound coupled with a nervy, energetic terrier. In Lonsdale’s case, this makes him easy to under-estimate, as he proves when his suspicions about a mole within the smug, complacent French Cabinet are proved accurate. When asked how he could have known which ‘phone to bug, he dead-pans: “I didn’t, so I tapped all of them”.  

There’s also a highly-impressive gallery of British character actors on hand: Ronald Pickup as the scheming forger, Cyril Cusack as the gentle gunsmith, Tony Britten (or Tony ‘Birmingham’ as his accent denotes here), Donald Sinden (who amusingly keeps pronouncing Jackal as the vaguely fithy-sounding ‘Jack-all’), Timothy West, Maurice Denham, Eric Porter and Anton Rogers and more. The European contingent is rounded out to include among others Delphine Seyrig, Vernon Dobtcheff and the lovely Olga Georges-Picot (who Woody Allen fans might recognise from LOVE AND DEATH).

THE DAY OF THE JACKAL has other strengths aside from its superb cast. Unusually it allows the assassin to be followed as a central character rather than a mysterious background shadowy figure. Any functional killings he does along the way are handled with impeccable taste by Zinnemann, either being dispatched by blows where the impact is off-screen or in the case of Seyrig a subtle darkness-obscured strangulation. 

Since we know that the Jackal fails in his mission, like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN the script opts to show the plot as a how-dunnit not a who-dunnit. Fox is shown in vicariously enjoyable detail going about his disguises, forged passport, customised gun purchasing and track-covering murders as if he were a dashing, posh international businessman. Zinnemann was concerned going in: “In spite of knowing the end, would the audience sit still? And it turned out that they did, just as the readers of the book did”. That’s a tribute to his work and that of the screenplay and cast in unfolding the narrative so compellingly.

During the shooting, trivia fans might like to know that the likeness of Adrian Cayla Legrand to the real De Gaulle was so close that some French people in the slightly overlong climactic real parade footage mistook him for the real thing; disconcerting when you consider the President had been dead for two years. Also, not everyone knew the police pursuers were actors and there were cases of members of the public getting involved to help catch them catch suspected criminals in the crowd scenes.

At the end of the film, after the Jackal is blown away by Lonsdale as he attempts a second shot at De Gaulle, we learn that even in death he was still in a sense one step beyond the French authorities. The identity they think is really him after the myriad false ones turns out to be another sleight-of-hand giving the film that almost documentary-like flavour. (Indeed, until I checked this time, I’d always thought THE DAY OF THE JACKAL was based on a true story, such is its carefully-constructed believability). The story’s intriguing connection to reality was further heightened when the terrorist Carlos the Jackal was finally caught. He was so named because a copy of the Forsyth novel was found in his apartment when captured.

Fans of the Forsyth novel and this film may recall that one of the suggested assassins before choosing the Jackal is a member of the ex-Nazi clandestine group ODESSA, subsequently part of Forsyth’s next book in 1972 and a subsequent film (which I will review later).

THE DAY OF THE JACKAL is a thumping good cat-and-mouse procedural thriller.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

No.48. Musicals: OLIVER (1968)

OLIVER (1968)

This 1968 musical is surely one of the great Hollywood old-fashioned lavish crowd-pleasers of the classic studio era. Adapted from Dickens’ novel and transplanted from the stage show with words and music by Lionel Bart, it’s a triumphant example of how to translate stage magic to the big screen. OLIVER also contain a gallery of star performances whose actors would be made by them and indelibly be associated for the rest of their careers...
The plot is surely known to all, being the tale of the orphaned work-house boy of unlikely goodness who falls in with a bad crowd, and even when adopted, struggles to escape the clutches of temporary criminal friends.

The songs are a cavalcade of hits, not a dud in the pack. The opening ‘Food Glorious Food’ sets us up for the epic scale of the marvellous choreography on offer as the workhouse boys tramp in malnourished military form with a hymn to the pleasures of good nosh denied them. ‘Boy for Sale’ allows Harry Secombe, (who would have previously been best known as Neddie Seagoon of the Goons) to shine with his tremendous Welsh tenor as Mr Bumble, the Beadle. There’s a great cameo from Leonard Rossiter as the undertaker Mr Sowerberry supported by another sitcom gem Hylda Baker as his wife.

Mark Lester makes a sweet, guileless Oliver. His singing is tentative and lightly feminine, which is no surprise as it only emerged twenty years later that his song vocals were dubbed by Kathe Green, the daughter of the film’s musical director Johnny Green as Lester was deemed to be tone deaf.
An amazingly assured contrast is Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, his shady new companion. Wild is so confident and worldly in his technique that it’s easy to forget he was a young boy and not an child/adult like Gary Coleman. It’s also hard to believe that whilst he was in the West End company of OLIVER, he was relegated to the boys’ chorus as they thought he was too short for greater roles. Luckily, director Carol Reed was a better judge of talent.

The Dodger is the connection that passes our innocent hero to the lead villain Fagin; a career-defining and much loved portrayal of roguish charm by Ron Moody, easily one of the most celebrated musical film performances of all time – just winner of one of the film’s six Academy Awards. He is a multi-layered, endlessly inventive whirlwind as the king of a den of child thieves. One moment he shouts gruffly at his gang to keep them in line, the next he can dance with fingerless-gloved delicacy and seduce anyone to the dark side of criminality. There is real soulfulness too in his eyes. Watch his reaction as he is forced to see Bill strike Oliver, or his inner conflict in the show-stopping ‘Reviewing the Situation’ as he considers the possibility of a life going straight. Moody was accused of anti-semitism in his mannerisms and speech as Fagin and yet these embellishments give a richness that is partly what made his playing of the part so memorable. I was lucky enough to see Jonathan Pryce’s version in the 1994 revival and as excellent as he was, by avoiding any ethnic troubles in his ‘piratical’ take on the role, it did lose some of the characterful touches that made Moody such a definitive imprint.

Shani Wallis, who had a solid musical theatre background, makes a gutsy and heartfelt Nancy. She superbly conveys a loyal blue-collar woman of the School of Hard Knocks. With the benefit of a supposedly more enlightened present, her two numbers ‘It’s a Fine Life’ and ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ sit a little awkwardly though, as they inadvertently defend domestic violence. It’s not easy to see without wincing her cheerful shrug in the first song: “You can always cover one till he blacks the other one/But you don’t dare cry!” sans any kind of irony.

The man Nancy is willing to tolerate such unacceptable cruelty for? Why, it’s none other than the smouldering bad-boy of British cinema Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes, with the lovable pit-bull Bullseye in tow. Reed menaces softly like the glowing embers of a fire, but is quick to burn and use his cudgel when inflamed by the crafty dissembling of Fagin or the back-talking of Nancy. The director (his Uncle Carol) wisely opted not to have Reed since his signature tune ‘ My Name’ from the stage version - If you’ve seen him crooning in the film of TOMMY (1975) you’ll know why, but since the melody appears in the Overture medley, it suggests the song was filmed before being deleted.
The high-budget gloss of OLIVER is partly what conveys that Golden Era feel to the film I mentioned earlier. The Oscar-winning art/set design by John Box and Terence Marsh is breath-taking and has noticeable depth of perspective in the gorgeously detailed sets. The London wharf and city street set- pieces are even more impressive when you consider this was when they were all physically built and shown in-camera, not mapped in later as CGI. As Fagin and the Dodger reunite and head off for adventures new, it’s into a lovingly-created sunset.

Also, the dynamic choreography deserves equal mention - there’s something about the joyful explosion of a scene’s full populace into precise stylised dance moves that transports you back to a type of film entertainment hardly ever attempted in our more cynical age? The stand-out example for me is ‘Who Will Buy?’ where the street vendors’ dancing beautifully augments the wonderful blended separate character vocals.

Amidst the welcome sugar-coating, there’s even a trace of the Hammer-style macabre at the climax – and I’m not talking about Oliver Reed’s mutton chops which are almost a practise run for the later lycanthropic burners in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF. After Sykes is hounded by the city’s people brandishing torches, reminiscent itself of the climatic face-offs between villagers and monster in the old Universal FRANKENSTEIN movies, he is shot – and hangs bodily from the impromptu creaking gibbet in a strikingly grim tableau. Not every criminal gets away with it.

Incidentally, musical trivia fans might like to know that Lionel Bart sold the rights to the show for a pittance when at the height of debt problems, which meant he would have seen no benefit from all the future productions of his masterpiece; but when Sir Cameron Mackintosh began his series of revivals of OLIVER, he made a provision that Bart would receive an unknown slice of the profits from then on.

OLIVER is a brilliant, handsomely-mounted movie musical and richly deserved its critical acclaim, awards and box office bonanza…

Wednesday, 26 August 2015



IN 1972, THE Rolling Stones toured the USA for the first time since the tragic Altamont concert (reviewed early in my blog series) with their masterpieve album ‘Exile On Main Street’. Stills photographer Robert Frank shot hours of backstage film footage and compiled it into the documentary COCKSUCKER BLUES, which remains unreleased as it very much shows the band uncensored (Mick about to snort cocaine for example) with groupie activity and drug-taking within the group’s circle. It’s a roughly edited , hand-held film and mainly available in poor bootleg quality, which does make it feel all the more illicit, but worth seeing for fans of the band. It lifts the lid on the truth behind the sex n’ drugs n’ rock ‘n roll of a touring superstar rock group, warts and all.

It begins with the mocking caption: ‘Except for the musical numbers, the events depicted in this film are fictitious. No representation of actual persons and events is intended’
Frank’s idea was to leave cameras lying around for anyone to pick up and film, on the understanding that no-one could say no to the final use of their image (Imagine trying to get a band to agree to that on tour in this era of corporate public-image protection).

Mick Jagger, shown being interviewed by someone, remarks that on this tour the Stones felt more relaxed then when they were in ’69. Hardly suprising considering how vulnerable they were during the murder/Hell’s Angels interface of Altamont.

There’s copious back-stage meanderings: guitar warm-ups before going on, the adrenaline rush of preparation, Mick as afore-mentioned is shown rolling up a bill tightly before snorting coke off-camera. Drug use and its plentifulness is a continual theme of the movie. A groupie is shown shooting up. She dozily asks afterwards: “ How come you wanted to film that?”. Terry ‘EASY RIDER’ Southern drops by. He is shown snorting coke and marvelling somewhat blurredly at the cost: “I don’t think it’s possible to develop a habit”.

There are fleeting cameos of other arts luminaries of the period coming to see the Stones: Andy Warhol, Tina Turner, Truman Capote, Bianca Jagger travelling by car briefly with Mick and Keith.
We see plenty of glimpses of the kind of cliched activity you normally read about rock stars getting up to. As their ‘plane takes off in another scene, one of the entourage shouts ”We’re airborne” and immediately begins stripping his shrieking, compliant groupie playmate of her bra. Amusingly, Keith Richards and Bobby Keyes are shown chucking a TV set off their hotel room balcony, Keith cautioning his pal: “ Make sure you hit the garbage area”.  There’s also some low-grade ‘porn’ salaciousness of a groupie pleasuring herself, and Mick doing the same through his trousers.

There are also hints of the inevitable cooped-up boredom that must set in during the day while on the road, since the band would struggle to go out in public unmolested except maybe in small towns. A stoned Keith deals with the limitations of hotel order policy when he asks for fruit from room service ‘And three apples’. There’s an unintentionally wry moment, considering all the illegal drug-taking, when Charlie Watts is in front of the TV playing an advert for Excedrin.

The concert footage is variable. There is the excitement of Stevie Wonder joining them on stage for ‘Uptight’ and ‘Satisfaction’, and some lesser quality recording/performance scenes (such as a shouty ‘Street Fightin’ Man’ but they try to capture the live energy of the band which is very hard to do on screen.

Some vox pop interview tape of fans outside the venues discuss how they make money from ticket-scalping, and more alarmingly a young woman for whom the Stones seem to be all that stop her from ending it all. She recounts her life as a drug addict whose child was taken away by the authoritiies: ” What’s wrong with a mother that’s on acid and loves her child?…She was born on acid”. I wonder if she survived to have a sobering view of this clip later in life.

Incidentally, the story behind the title song is that it was written to fulfill a contractual obligation with Decca Records, so Mick delivered a tune about a London rent boy with inevitably explicit lyrics. The band enjoyed the blocking of the song by the label’s reactionary owner Sir Edward Lewis. Around this time was the famous censorship trial of ‘Oz’ magazine and Marshall Chess, the producer, had the idea of getting bands to contribute adult material to an album, including this song. The concept didn’t get very far. More’s the pity. It would have made a refreshing change to many of the self-righteous charity alternatives.

As the decades roll by, the Rolling Stones prove well nigh indestructable and arguably forever young in spirit. COCKSUCKER BLUES is an interesting and unathorised peek into their lives on tour…

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

No.46. JAGGER EDGE: 'NED KELLY' (1970)

NED KELLY (1970)

Ned Kelly wasn’t just a troubled outlaw dogged by lawmen. He also gave his name to an equally fraught film bedevilled with problems of its own. Back in the early 1960s it was meant to be a project to team up Karel Reisz and Albert Finney after Finney’s great success with TOM JONES. However, the cost of being forced to take a mostly British crew to shoot in Australia pushed the budget too high. This was before the release of TOM JONES which would have given them much more leeway and clout to ask for more resources. The film was abandoned in that form but later picked up on by Finney’s director on his last film and co-written with Ned Kelly expert Ian Jones. The addition of Mick Jagger in the title role promised something intriguing.

The story is the almost mythical tale of the benevolent young Irish-Australian Kelly, who initially somewhat reluctantly becomes a celebrity outlaw,  a latter-day Robin Hood figure, one step ahead of the law till he is brought down in an undignified shoot-out with the cops while encased in home-made armour.

On the day that Mick Jagger’s role in NED KELLY was announced, he left his home to find himself beseiged by plain-clothes police officers. The force clearly had an agenda to keep hounding him since his discharge from the Redlands drug bust in 1967. The timing was suspiciously indicative of a tip-off from within the Rolling Stones’ inner circle. Both Mick and his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull were charged with joint possession of a quarter of a pound of cannabis. Lucikly, the second hearing allowed him to keep the filming of NED KELLY in his schedule and off he went to Australia with Faithfull.

Jagger’s problems continued almost as soon as he arrived down under, with Faithfull attempting suicide, the second of his girlfriends to try this after Chrissie Shrimpton. This was due to a mixture of Brian Jones’ death, her feeling of isolation in a relationship with Mick and excessive drug use. Whilst she underwent hospital treatment, he and the director had to handle press conferences and then get to work on location in New South Wales.

The filming was dogged with ill-luck; continual crew illnesses, a fire that destroyed many of the costumes and a backfiring prop pistol that burned Jagger’s hand. It was a struggle to stay focused especially as he felt duty-bound to be turning out material for his band during the filming. He penned the lyrics for ‘Brown Sugar’ for example during this period, though with the less subtle title of ‘Black Pussy’.

There’s no denying Jagger’s sincerity in approaching the part. He told the press: “I want to concentrate on being a character actor”. But if homework and intention translated into success, the acting profession would be overburdened with even more labelled ‘geniuses’ that it already is. Unlike PERFORMANCE, his portrayal here is patchy. Whilst his previous film was set in more familiar territory, he doesn’t quite sit convincingly in this world. To be fair, there are many trained, experienced actors who find it hard to adapt to a period milieu. (Imagine Bruce Willis as a cowboy or a Victorian gentleman). Mick comes across as sweet and charming in the early scenes where he is not saddled with a cause to make. His accent is classic sing-song leprechaun ‘Oirish’, yet once again he’s not the first or last non-Irish actor to fall foul of this deceptively difficult accent.

Jagger is capable in the action scenes, but also uncomfortable at other times, hindered it has to be said by some clunky ‘period’ dialogue that a greater talent would find hard to weave naturalism from. He defends his reputation with such clangers as asserting “My conscience is as clear as the snow in Peru”. He later declaims:  “I’ll make those stiff-necked unicorns wish they’d never heard the name of Kelly”. You can see what I mean. Even Kelly himself would labour in vain to hammer out quality workmanship from this coal-scuttle of a text.

Whilst we’re on the subject of Kelly’s make-shift armour, the one rousingly effective scene is the climactic battle with the police, where briefly we see the action through the eye slit point-of-view of his scuttle helmet as he attacks the cops amidst the smoke on the railway tracks. When he is wounded into submission however, fans of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL may gain unintentional laughs from his flailing, reminiscent of the similarly never-say-die Black Knight.

Another annoying feature of NED KELLY is the large amount of ADR post-dubbing of the voices. Some may have been due to unavoidable location sound problems, but not only does it alienate the viewer slightly, it also looks like two of the performances may have been dubbed by other actors, namely the overly posh police officer and the stereotypically Jewish rustler whose post-voice sounds more dubiously anti-semitic than Ron Moody’s Fagin in OLIVER.

Kelly is made to hang by the Judge. We already know this at the start in a nicely sepia-toned prologue. Kelly scorns the judgement, fearing death loftily “As little as to drink a cup of tea”. He then tells the Judge triumphantly “I’ll see you there” and points emphatically down to hell, a final defiant image freeze-frame ending.

If only the film-makers could afford to be equally insouciant. NED KELLY failed at the box office. Sadly, it followed the initially unsuccessful run of PERFORMANCE, but unlike Donald Cammell’s masterpiece lacks any repeat resonance or cult interest to have developed a second life. It’s a curio, but ultimately no more than that.

Monday, 24 August 2015



(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 cafĂ© 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?

Sunday, 23 August 2015



In 1969, the Rolling Stones decided to give a free concert in California. The Golden Gate Park was unavailable so they opted for Altamont Speedway stadium, a venue unused to the demands of a rock concert. Their desire to get the logistics arranged at very short notice led to one of the most infamous concerts of modern rock history for the wrong reasons. The Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin were there to film the gig for a documentary and were the unfortunate recorders for posterity of sickening violence as well as the reactions of the bands and fans.

The film of GIMME SHELTER is played out with different layers on-screen at the same time. For the first half, we cut between footage of the Stones’ live Madison Square Garden show (recorded for their live album ‘Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!’) and the band as well as the film-makers watching it on an editing bay.  We also see them observing themselves at work in Muscle Shoals studio in America, laying aroung and listening to playbacks of ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Wild Horses’ approvingly. An extra layer is provided by an over-dub of a live radio phone-in after Altamont where one of the Hells Angels’, Sonny Barger, who defends his people, claiming that his sacred bike was touched and arguing that since the organisers had given the group beer in exchange for crowd control, that’s exactly what he was going to do. This was a cataclysmic error of security judgement. At the end of his account, drummer Charlie Watts remarks with gentle sarcasm: ’Well done, Sonny’

Later, Melvin Belli, the band’s lawyer is on the phone to the venue management of Altamont who is resistant to the concert on the grounds that he knows rock bands tend to trash venues disrespectfully. This is smoothed out, and the road crew management assure Belli and the Stones that they can set up the concert at speed since they did the same successfully at Woodstock.

The second half of the film focuses on the gig itself. We hover over the scene with the Stones in a helicopter; the film crew brilliantly capturing the stunning turn-out of fans. There are miles of cars snaking along the roads leading to the stadium, which is encircled by an enormous cloud of fans with vans and other vehicles. Clearly, the number of fans coming to this impromptu rock mecca would be wildly under-estimated. The expectation for the show is enormous...

Even without knowing the awful events, the expert editing of the day’s footage tells you from early on that the atmosphere is tense; prickly like an anticipated grudge between two old rival football teams. Fans keep crowding the stage. Many people are already showing symptoms of acid and booze excess, clambering over each other and disregarding the road crew’s continual already-weary warnings with abandon. The Hells’ Angels, who as aforementioned were employed as free security in return for all the beer they could drink, are taking full advantage of the liquid refreshment and, alarmingly, wielding pool cues. Surely a recipe for disaster, slowly simmering as the heat and excitement rose. What were the organisers thinking? Surely this could only have been the result of over-hasty decisions made without the benefit of time for smart and safe planning.

Jefferson Airplane, who opened for the Stones were like test lions thrown to the wolves. Their co-lead singer is knocked out by one of the Angels. Paul Kanter jokes to the bikers: “I’d like to thank you for that”. Santana as well as Crosby, Stills & Nash play (not shown) and the Grateful Dead wisely opt out, sensing the brewing trouble that has already begun erupting. This is all before the main act comes on. Initially as Jagger and the guys leave their caravan, they have no idea what awaits them – but it doesn’t take long to get them up to speed. After they open with ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, they begin ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ when violence breaks out between fans and the Angels, who mercilessly solve their problems with bludgeonings. The irony of the song subject isn’t lost on Mick. ”Whenever we play that song, something funny always happens” he muses. To be fair, the volatility is not entirely the Hells Angels’ fault, especially when you see the chemical/alcohol-induced state of many of the other revellers. The song becomes increasingly ragged as fans circle (always a bad sign) around a spate of fighting. This happens roughly four times during the Stones’ set. More than once, Mick gives up singing to plead ineffectually with the fans: “Cool out. Why is anyone fighting?” while Richards, Watts and the others plug manfully on, underscoring his well-meant but impossible task. He is King Canute before the crashing waves of a tanked-up audience.

The most notorious moment of the show, pinpointed in detail by the documentary team, is the sickening murder of 18 year-old black youth Meredith Hunter. During another tragically ironic song title, ‘Under My Thumb’, after failing to scramble up onto the stage, he responds to a bouncer attack from the Angels by drawing a gun. In an incendiary environment like this, it was the worst and the last thing he could do. We witness him being stabbed by one of the gang members as he disappears from view. Just so that we’re sure of what we see so fleetingly, one of the Maysles brothers asks for a rewind and freezes the image to clearly show us and Jagger that Hunter is brandishing the fire-arm in the air and the knife of his killer is visible. Having never seen GIMME SHELTER before but hearing varying accounts of the inciting incidents, this was a shocking moment for me. Far from excusing his harrowing murder of course, it simply compounds how out-of-hand the evening had become. The Stones should be given credit for attempting to stay on stage as long as possible and ride out the unfolding concert’s carnage at some considerable potential threat to their own safety.
Mercifully, it’s not long before they head for the safe haven of the waiting chopper…
We then return to the editing studio where a sombre mood breaks up the session between the Maysles, Zwerin and the band. GIMME SHELTER ends with a freeze-frame of Jagger’s sober expression. There is nothing that can be said.

Altamont became a symbol of the end of the 60’s dream for many - as powerfully as the shocking Tate-La Bianca murders perpetrated by the Manson Family the same year.  GIMME SHELTER is a shattering experience, superb and compelling. It’s not so much a concert movie (each Stones’ song hopelessly collapses amongst the chaos), but more of a warning. Hopefully, lessons would be learned for the future about the dangerous folly of hastily-prepared re-stagings of mass public concerts.