Performance, the 1970 British crime drama best known as Mick Jagger’s acting debut, had a challenging route to screen. But despite troubles with studio Warner Bros, the film, which defines the bohemian London of the 1960s, has gone on to be considered one of the best British films of all time.
A new book, Performance: The 50th Anniversary, written and compiled by Jay Glennie, tells the story of its chaotic production, gives a glimpse behind-the-scenes with over 500 images including many never seen before, and looks at its legacy through the eyes of star Jagger, as well as Nic Roeg, who directed the film alongside Donald Cammell and producer Sandy Lieberson. Glennie has given Deadline an exclusive look at the book, which is released via Coattail Publishing on December 1.
Jagger says, “It’s actually hard to believe that we’re still talking about the film 50 years later. Not many films stick around that long. It’s amazing that it has achieved such longevity and interest. You know we thought we were making a pretty niche English film of that period; it’s a very English film of that period isn’t it? It’s nice to hear there are so many fans of Performance willing to talk about the film.”
Performance, which was filmed in 1968, is the movie that arguably defines the late 60s in bohemian London. It tells the story of Chas Devlin, a gangster played by James Fox who is the diligent enforcer for his boss, Harry Flowers, played by Johnny Shannon. Killing a rival puts the fragile status quo of the London underworld at risk and forces Chas to run and look for refuge until he can slip out of England. A Notting Hill townhouse owned by Turner, a burnt-out rock star played by Jagger, appears to be the ideal short-term hideaway. That is until Chas allows Turner’s ménage à trois to mess with his identity even further.
The film was written by Cammell and produced by Lieberson, who made the transition from agent to the likes of Peter Sellers, Richard Harris and Sergio Leone. “I wasn’t aware that I wanted to make the move from being an agent into producing films, and meeting Donald Cammell, and subsequently Nic Roeg, meant I could make the move a reality,” recalls Lieberson.
The film was a heady cocktail of hallucinogenic mushrooms, homosexual and three-way sex, violence, amalgamated identities and artistic references to Jorge Luis Borges, Magritte and Francis Bacon. Its star, Jagger, fails to appear until nearly an hour into the film and only sang one song on the subsequent soundtrack by Jack Nitzsche. However, Jagger was on board from the start, as he was looking to break into movies. Jagger says he was keen “to take on a role because it’s more than just a pop star role”.
Lieberson was enthusiastic about this move. “It was always going to be Mick as Turner. As an agent, I knew Mick professionally, as well as being part of a group of friends that include Robert Fraser, Marianne, Keith and Anita, Kenneth Anger, Spanish Tony… I had no doubts that Mick could do it. Donald, Nic and I were convinced he was completely right to play the rock star Turner in Performance. I knew that all the fame and notoriety surrounding him at that time of his life would be perfect.”
“I’ve always said that it’s essential that art mirrors the times we live in and I think Performance pulls this off. It wasn’t a script out of nowhere, it was a family affair. Acting-wise I think it’s the best film of mine; it’s dark and interesting and really holds up to scrutiny; hell, we’re talking about it,” adds the Rolling Stones frontman.
Lieberson says the team also wanted to ensure that the film “would be influenced by the times we were living in. Into that mix went the political, social and psychological mood sweeping across the world, and in particular for us in London”.
Despite now being seen as a seminal film, Performance was universally vilified upon its initial release. Even before its release, Warner Bros, the film studio funding it, was repulsed by its violence, drug taking and sexual morality. The company, keen to tap into the burgeoning youth market, financed the production in the misguided belief that it was buying into its own A Hard’s Day’s Night. But Warner Bros was horrified with its investment and refused to release the film. “They thought it was dirty,” says Lieberson. Two years of financial wrangling followed with legal threats from both the studio, and subsequently Cammell and Jagger, before the eventual release of Performance.
Cammell would see his co-director Nic Roeg (Don’t Look Now) become lauded as one of the great filmmakers, whereas his own career floundered in Hollywood. It was in the Hollywood Hills in relative obscurity aged 62 that he would place a revolver to his head and pull the trigger, after completing only three more films – Demon Seed (1977), White of the Eye (1987), Wild Side (1995). Similarly, Anita Pallenberg, the ultimate rock chick, would begin her descent into drug addiction during filming, naively believing that she “had kept it from everyone”.
The rising resentment against the ruling elite, thrown up and scattered across the globe in 1968, resulted in a seismic social and political change. “Performance was born out of that fervour and an understanding that we did not want to make a Hollywood movie. Donald, Nic and I wanted something that was going to rival the new wave cinema of France and Italy,” says Lieberson.
Glennie’s book pieces together the story of the making of Performance, from the people who created it and from those who have been influenced and touched by its lasting legacy.
“It’s true we did trip over gold,” says Roeg. “We, Donald and I, were prepared when we set out to make Performance; we were prepared to trip over gold and it is fair to say we did discover plenty on the film.”