It was a movie that shocked the critics, pushed one actor to the edge of sanity and established an image of Mick Jagger as rock’s prince of darkness.
Released in 1970 and simply called Performance, the film, co-starring James Fox and Mick Jagger, was deemed so outrageous that critics at a preview screening walked out, with one film executive’s wife reportedly throwing up in the cinema.
According to co-director Nicolas Roeg, the post-screening party was quite something.
“The guests were walking away from us … we found ourselves in a room on our own, we were pariahs.”
It was a reaction so full of revulsion that its financiers, Warner Brothers, demanded it be re-cut. They had expected a pop film — instead they were delivered a dark tale exploring the relationship between sex and violence.
But was it really that incendiary and was that the makers’ intention?
The ‘peace and love’ era’s dark underbelly
A new book called Performance: The Making of a Classic, tells the inside story from the people who were there making it. What quickly becomes clear is that the movie grew during production.
It may have begun its life as a gangster story about hitman Chas (James Fox) on the run from his own gang, seeking refuge in the home of washed-up rock star Turner (played by Jagger).
But it morphed into a much darker film about swinging London as the 60s began to decay.
As Jagger’s character Turner says, “the only performance that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness”.
If this sounds a touch theatrical think again, because even now the film has a real sense of authenticity, bringing together the violent criminal underworld of 1960s London with the sleaze of the rock underground.
Writer Donald Cammell had crime connections and a fascination with London gangsters, including the psychopathic Kray brothers.
To add to the realism, Cammell cast real-life crooks in key roles and when it came time to make the film, insiders were dispatched to tell Ronnie Kray he was an inspiration for one of those characters. His response?
“Does it slag me off, son? No? Well that’s all right then, innit.”
The film that sparked a thousand rumours
Sensational stories about events on set boosted the film’s notoriety.
Were the sex scenes involving Anita Pallenberg, Michele Breton and Jagger “real”? Did this on-screen dalliance with Pallenberg, partner to Keith Richards, divide the Stones? Was this the reason for Keith’s descent into heroin addiction?
“All the stories around the filming of those scenes are so good I’m not going to deny any of them,” said Jagger when interviewed for the new book (no doubt with a wry smile).
In politics that would amount to confirmation. Others say simply the cast were in “deep method” with lines blurring between the film and reality.
Roeg reveals the scenes were so explicit that when he went to the lab to pick up the rushes, the staff had placed the film on the floor and were destroying it with hammers and chisels, fearing they’d be charged with holding pornographic material.
Did Performance send James Fox ‘mad’?
Others are even more revealing. Fox shares how intense preparation was as he immersed himself in his role as hitman Chas.
“I spent hours in the gym. Just being around those guys (criminals) helped me find Chas. I met Ronnie Kray. You add the haircut and the clothes I took to wearing and living in the area, and it felt great, quite liberating actually,” he said.
But did this role-playing and on-set drug-taking push him to edge of madness, motivating him to find God and leaving the film industry for 10 years?
“People always try and make cause and effect out of my involvement in Performance. ‘James Fox became a religious maniac and left the film industry’.
“It’s rubbish, my life was already heading to my gaining a greater religious belief.”
Through contemporary eyes
The film left many legacies. Fox describes it as his finest role. Jagger feels the same about his own performance. It also spawned a soundtrack album overseen by musician Jack Nitzche, with contributions from Jagger and other 60s stars.
The major song on the album, Memo from Turner, is as claustrophobic and sordid as the movie. Building on Jagger’s satanic aura, it delivered a glimpse of how talented he could be beyond the confines of the Rolling Stones.
In keeping with the dark character of the film, many of those involved seemed touched by a grim hand. Donald Cammell took his own life. Anita Pallenberg and Michele Breton succumbed to heroin addiction. John Bindon, who was a real crook and actor in the movie, was stabbed to death in a nightclub.
Fifty years on, what stands out beyond the sex and violence is how the film caught a pivotal moment in the 1960s, when excess took a generation beyond enlightenment into degradation.
The moment when the dream of love and peace soured.
It’s equally fascinating to see how time has tamed the critics and how the film in most eyes has matured like a fine wine, while remaining utterly demanding. In recent polls it was voted into the top 50 British movies of all time.
Jagger sums it up this way:
“It’s dark, it’s interesting and it really holds up … it’s amazing it’s achieved such longevity and interest.”
High praise indeed for a man not given to flights of nostalgia.
Performance: The Making of a Classic (Coattail Books) is available now. Images courtesy Coattail Books.