Jagger’s film debut may be his ultimate performance

 By Dave Thompson
Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger contributed two songs to the soundtrack for the movie
Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger contributed two songs to the soundtrack for the movie “Performance.” Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records.
It’s been around for so long and has been praised so often that it seems strange to think there was ever a time when director Nic Roeg’s “Performance” was not a part of the rock mythos.

It is, after all, the ultimate rock ’n’ roll movie, and that despite having very little to say on the subject beyond its lead character, the singularly named Turner the archetypal post-psychedelic burnout, struggling to revitalize his career at the same time as tacitly acknowledging that he didn’t have a clue where to start.

It’s a dark film — possibly Roeg’s darkest — and a disturbing one. The intersection of pop decadence and gangster hedonism was not new, even when “Performance” was being planned — London gangland figureheads Ronnie and Reggie Kray had cavorted with showbiz heroes a decade before, and when Morrissey wrote ”The Last Of The Famous International Playboys” in 1989, he was tapping into precisely that same mythology.

The difference was, when Morrissey sang a love song to his “dear hero in prison,” that’s all he did. He sang. When Mick Jagger arose at the peak of his own supposedly blackest hour, stepping out of a world of sympathetic devils, banqueting beggars and stray-cat blues, and into the even more stygian universe of Turner and “Performance,” many critics complained that he wasn’t actually acting. He was simply playing himself.

“Performance” was that good.

Plot points

“Performance” was the creation of writer Donald Cammell, who originally conceived it as “The Performers,” a lighthearted romp through the Swinging Sixties, with Marlon Brando cast as an American gangster hiding out in London at the pad of a pop star.

Slowly, however, the mood shifted, and by the time the script drifted into Mick Jagger’s orbit, with James Fox stepping into the role once meant for Brando, it was a very different creation, one which supplanted its basic premise with a series of questions relating to identity crisis, madness and murder. Indeed, we are still awaiting more than a glimpse of Jagger when Fox, in the role of gangster Chas, murders his childhood friend and rival, Joey, in a scene that is all the more intense for the homoerotic gun-and-whip play that precedes the actual shooting.

Chas goes on the run, not from the law, but from his own former gangster allies, a mob headed up by “respectable” London “businessman” Harry Flowers, himself a role call for every Cockney mob boss Guy Ritchie has ever imagined.

Rightfully fearing for his life, the hard man Chas dyes his hair with red paint and heads underground. Or, at least, to the grubby café where he overhears a very Hendrix-like musician conveniently discussing the plight in which he’d just left his landlord — complete with names, addresses, outstanding rent, the works. It’s the one false note in the entire movie, but it’s also the pivot around which the rest of the film revolves, for it’s the scene that ensures Chas’ immediate destiny, fetching up at a once-glorious but now somewhat seedy address in London’s traditionally bohemian Notting Hill district, on the corner of Powys Square.

Aware that his would-be host is in the entertainment business but sufficiently square that he has no real clue who he is calling upon, Chas introduces himself as a fellow performer — a juggler. It is not an introduction guaranteed to thrill his hosts, Turner, and his assistants/lovers Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michele Breton), and there’s some doubt whether they will even allow him into the house. But Chas forces the rent into Pherber’s hand, pushes his way into the house and, before anybody can do anything about it, Turner has a new lodger.

Still, their early relationship is shaped by dislike and distrust. Turner may, as one of the house’s other inhabitants, the maid Lorraine, have enjoyed a string of hits in the past. But he has “lost his demon” in the years since then and is now a virtual recluse, amusing himself by purchasing art, spray-painting his walls, strumming Robert Johnson and having sex with the girls.

Which doesn’t sound that bad a life, but Chas is openly contemptuous — “funny little geezer,” he spits in one scene. “You’ll look funny when you’re 50.”

But there’s a bond forming as well, one which Pherber, in particular, is intent on furthering, and as the movie approaches its conclusion and Chas realizes that his only chance of escaping the consequences of the murder is to flee the country, Turner comes close to begging him to stay. At the same time he understands why he can’t. But then a twist of underworld betrayal is added to the plot, and on the day that Chas is preparing to leave, Harry Flowers and his men come calling. And somebody gets shot and killed. But is it Turner, by Chas, as it originally appears? Or Chas, by Turner?

The filming of “Performance” began in October 1967, with Jagger and Fox joined by a very impressive array of talent.

Early hopes that Jagger’s girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, would be cast as Pherber were dashed when Faithfull discovered she was pregnant. Keith Richard’s girlfriend, Pallenberg, was cast in her stead, and hindsight reckons it was the right decision.

Faithfull was too English to truly play the role; the German-born Pallenberg, on the other hand, adds both an exotic twist and a cruel sexuality to the role, and the scenes when she and Chas interact become all the more powerful for her natural strength — a quality that Chas never seems previously to have encountered in a woman.

Established character actors Stanley Meadows, Allan Cuthbertson, Anthony Morton and Johnny Shannon, and the fast-rising Anthony Valentine were all recruited, and so was John Bindon, a real-life gangster turned actor, who was something of a society darling during the mid-1960s despite (or, perhaps, because of) his criminal past.
A soundtrack was created. Jagger’s own musical contracts ensured that the Stones would not take part, but he contributed two performances: A brief acoustic strum through the Robert Johnson songbook, which did not even make the soundtrack album; and “Memo From Turner,” co-written, says biographer Philip Norman, with Donald Cammell (although it was naturally credited to the Jagger-Richard team) and recorded with Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder. (An earlier version, a demo cut with Jim Capaldi and Steve Winwood of Traffic, later appeared on the Stones’ Metamorphosis off-cuts collection.)

Other performances were drawn in from singer Merry Clayton (whose distinctive backing vocals haunt the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”), proto-rap artists The Last Poets, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Cooder alone. It was an impressive haul, all the more so since the filmmakers were determined that the music should foreshadow the action with pinpoint accuracy.

But “Memo From Turner” would become one of the film’s centerpieces regardless, a full-blooded Jagger performance that remains so powerful that of all the many so-called precursors of music video that the history books line up, many viewers regard this as the only one that matters — a point that the Boomtown Rats proved in the early 1980s, when Bob Geldof went into full Turner/Jagger mode to recreate the same scene during one of that band’s video performances.

Of course, the greatest achievement of “Performance,” at least at first, might well have been persuading Jagger to appear in the first place. He and the Stones had seen any number of possible film projects come and go over the last couple of years, including a grandiose five-movie deal that their American business manager, Allen Klein, claimed to have lined up.

With the exception of the in-concert short “Charlie Is My Darling,” however, past Stones movie projects had been forgotten as quickly as they were conceived — the meetings with Nick Ray early in 1965, for a celluloid version of Dave Wallis’ teenaged-wasteland novel “Only Lovers Left Alive,” had been joined in the dumper by a projected film version of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange,” while other “ideas” came and went in the pages of the press with numbing regularity.

Photographer David Bailey had reportedly mooted a movie called “The Assassination Of Mick Jagger,” while sharp-eyed fans were well aware that the 1966 album Aftermath started life as the projected soundtrack to another celluloid vehicle, the Andrew Loog Oldham-conceived “Back, Behind And Front.”

Not one of these took shape, however, and according to the late 1960s rumor mill, it looked as though “Performance” was equally doomed. Believing themselves secure in the knowledge that Roeg and Cammell were hatching the Rolling Stones’ riotous answer to The Beatles’ “A Hard Days Night,” the film’s principal backers, Warner Brothers, paid little attention to the film as it came together. Their £1.8 million, they believed, was in safe hands. Only when Roeg and Cammell delivered their creation did the executives realize just how wrong their initial assumptions had been.

“In a sense, most of the people in ‘Performance’ weren’t acting at all,” Marianne Faithfull recalled. “They were exhibiting themselves. Real gangsters, real rock stars, real drug addicts, real sirens. The film was truly our ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ — an allegory of libertine Chelsea life in the late ’60s, with its baronial rock stars, wayward jeunesse dorée, drugs, sex and decadence. It preserves the whole era under glass.”

And the picture wasn’t pretty. According to legend, the wife of one Warners executive was physically sick during one test screening, as bloody beating after beating rolled out of the gangland sequences: As an innocent chauffeur is cruelly shaved and then forced to watch while his employers’ car is drenched in acid; as Chas is held down and beaten with a switch; and so on.

Other corporate reactions were less extreme, but Warners was taking no chances. They had asked for “A Hard Day’s Night” and they received an atrocity. The film was canned; worse than that, there were moves afoot within the company to have the very negative destroyed, as if to purge the world for good of this malignant slice of celluloid garbage.

It would be two years before the film was finally cleared for release, years during which the original print was cut and recut, impenetrable Cockney accents were redubbed by other actors (for the American release only), and Warners itself underwent a major change in administration and outlook. Finally, “Performance” was cleared for release, but still the film raised hackles.

Respected movie critic John Simon wrote it off as “the most loathsome film of all time.” Historian David Thomson called it “a load of rubbish.” Another critic, Richard Schickel, described it as “the most completely worthless film I have seen since I began reviewing.”

The underground press was more forgiving, of course, and more than one hip young thing found his or herself laughing aloud at the in-jokes that permeated the movie — the delivery of Mars Bars that waits outside Turner’s front door, for example. Yet even the most avid admirers of “Performance” will admit that, by the standards of the day, the film pushed buttons.

Viewed today, the sex and drug scenes in “Performance” seem strong, even when compared to some of what is currently splashed over our screens. At the time, they were widely regarded as being tantamount to pornography, especially after rumors began insisting that Jagger and Pallenberg were certainly not acting during one of their on-screen sexual romps. Yet, whereas such a reputation might have been expected to send the prurient punters flocking to see the sex, it appears to have had the opposite effect.

“Performance” fared poorly in the cinemas, and the spin-off industry scarcely set the world on fire, either. A novelisation of the movie, by author William Hughes, came and went all but unnoticed. The soundtrack album, released worldwide through Warner Brothers followed suit. The Decca label in the U.K. did manage a minor hit with a single of “Memo From Turner” (backed by another soundtrack selection, Jack Nitzsche’s “Natural Magic”) but its chart peak of #32 was poor when compared to Jagger’s traditional highs. It would be another 15 years before another Jagger solo single was released in Britain, the calisthenic hell of “Just Another Night,” and it is with a wry smile that we note that it, too, ran out of steam at #32.

Neither did the movie’s troubles end there. For a long time, at least into the early 1990s, there was not even a “definitive” cut of the movie; those that did the midnight cinema round in the U.K. were noticeably different to those being watched in the United States. And when “Performance” finally made it onto DVD in 2007, the cut was different again, both visually and audibly. Jagger’s cry of “Here’s to jolly old England” during “Memo From Turner” was absent, while other musical effects were likewise missing. (On the plus side, American viewers were finally deemed capable of understanding Harry Flowers and Lorraine speaking with their original Cockney tones for the first time in the movie’s Stateside history.) If ever a movie has cried out for a full-blown directors cut, with missing scenes and sounds restored, and everything back as it ought to be, it is “Performance.”

Through all of these tempests, however, “Performance” marched on to establish itself not as merely one of the greatest rock movies of all time (and quite possibly the greatest, for what could really compete with it?), but also as one of the masterpieces of British cinema in general. Certainly its influence not only on movies but across the entire audio-visual palette is undeniable — from a technical point, it was the first feature film ever to use the cut-up technique of filming; from a censorial angle, it opened new doors of permissiveness, at least among directors, and the likes of “Midnight Cowboy” owe it a terrific debt.

Musically, “Performance” has been cited by artists as far removed as Big Audio Dynamite, Happy Mondays and Coil, all of whom employed several sizeable chunks of the movie’s dialogue in their recordings (“E=MC2,” “Mad Cyril” and “Further Back And Faster,” respectively); and, of course, one runs out of fingers and toes counting the number of would-be rock ’n’ roll outlaws who have tried to take Turner’s natural magic for their own.

They have failed, of course, because not one of them has grasped the single most important truth that gives “Performance” its most solid grounding. “The only performance that really matters,” Turner tells Chas during a discourse on juggling, “is the one that achieves madness.”

“Performance” achieves madness.

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