'Performance' - the Film Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Performance' - the Film

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Performance could be considered the ultimate cult film. It achieved notoriety and stylistic kudos in equal measure, and the off-camera trials and tribulations were matched only by the innovations of the movie's makers. Performance could be said to have invented rap, the music video, the film soundtrack album (along with Easy Rider), jump-cuts, and the 'trendy London gangster' genre (along with Get Carter) that inspired the recent Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch films. The film also foresaw the Rolling Stones' mood post-Altamont1 and has one of the most prescient lines in cinema, when Chas says to Turner (Jagger) that he'll 'look funny when he's fifty'.

Performance was released in 1970, some two years after the bulk of the shooting had finished. It was the product of a directorial collaboration between Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell, both of whom were then relatively inexperienced at directing. It was shot from the latter's script, which featured the highly topical twin underworlds of London gangsters and the depths of the rock'n'roll scene at the end of the 1960s, both of which were very much in the news with the post-Krays demi-monde of East London and the Stones hardly ever being out of the newspapers.

It starred James Fox and Mick Jagger, and the circumstances surrounding the movie's production have passed into cinematic legend. The shoot descended into copious drug-taking, infidelity, violence, serious financial wastage and possibly madness. The studio, Warner Bros, was not happy, and so the release date was postponed indefinitely. It was, perhaps, a blessing that it was ever released at all...

The Story

Performance centres around the character of Chas Devlin (Fox), a particularly vicious and eager young enforcer for the protection racket of his gangster boss Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon). The first half of the film shows Chas at work, 'putting the frighteners on little twerps', as he puts it.

Chas' childhood friendship with a sparring-partner turned bookmaker, Joey Maddocks, causes problems, however. Chas goes to see him after his betting shop has been turned over, against Flowers' orders, and Chas receives a beating for his disobedience. After shooting one of his assailants and escaping, Chas goes on the run.

He ends up in the least likely bolthole he can find; the delapidated Notting Hill residence of a faded and reclusive rock star, Turner (Jagger). Posing as a juggler, Chas finds that the louche world of rock decadence is far more than he bargained for.

Chas' vitality and sheer presence act as a kind of muse to the hitherto washed-up Turner, who has lost his creative demon. In return, he helps the previously sadistic Chas to discover a more sensitive and tolerant side of his persona. Helping Turner in this task are two girls, the manipulative Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and the innocent Lucy (Michele Bréton), and various narcotic substances.

However, this existence is threatened by the arrival of Flowers and his gang, who have managed to track the fugitive down...

The Shoot and Other Legends...

Because of the presence of the Rolling Stones and their entourage around the principal location in Powis Square in Notting Hill, and the fact that the studio was so blasé about what was happening on set2, it seemed inevitable that the film would descend into chaos.

It did.

For a start, one half of the directorial team, Donald Cammell, was himself something of a hellraiser3, and thus the script was in constant development, which is a nice way of saying that it was being changed and rewritten daily.

Mick Jagger was alleged to have started a relationship with Keith Richards' girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, right under his nose on set. Whether or not this was the case, the sex scenes shot involving the pair were rather steamy. This resulted in several cans of film being destroyed by outraged staff at the developers, and one mythic reel that was supposed to have escaped this destruction winning a 'Golden Phallus' award at a much later Dutch porn festival.

Pallenberg also contributed to the soundtrack; she got a black beat poetry group called 'The Last Poets' to do a tune called 'Wake Up N****rs', which is widely regarded as one of the first examples of proto-Hip-Hop. She also salvaged the script and ironed it after it fell in the sea at St Tropez.

James Fox, previously a clean-cut and talented actor specialising in upper-class youths such as his role in The Servant alongside Dirk Bogarde, was cast resolutely against type. He underwent boxing training in Shannon's gym, and was given a first-rate Cockney accent by David Litvinoff, a wildly eccentric East London wide boy who was a friend of Cammell and ostensibly the 'dialogue coach' on the film. His actual role involved showing his relatively naive charges the reality of gangster life. Coupled with this odd mentor, the rest of the cast (Jagger, Pallenberg et al) so bullied Fox about being straight and a non-drug-taking 'square' to the extent that when shooting finished, he quit the acting profession for the next decade or so and embraced religion instead.

Michele Bréton similarly disappeared after the film, but her subsequent movements have been shrouded in misinformation and myth. Some people think she died of an overdose in London not long after the completion of the film, others that she died of AIDS in Turkey. The current thinking is that she is actually alive and well and living in Germany.

The film's release in America was going to be a flop, or at least that is what was feared by the young studio executive in charge of promoting it. He was none other than a youthful Don Simpson, later notorious for being the most wildly decadent and warped man in Hollywood and also one half of the highly successful production team of Simpson and Bruckheimer4. His solution to this perceived problem? Throw the biggest and baddest party ever seen at a movie launch. He laid on the champagne, cocaine and marijuana himself. Needless to say, it was judged a success.

Cast List

  • James Fox (Chas)
  • Mick Jagger (Turner)
  • Anita Pallenberg (Pherber)
  • Michele Bréton (Lucy)
  • Ann Sidney (Dana)
  • John Bindon (Moody)
  • Stanley Meadows (Rosebloom)
  • Allen Cuthbertson (The Lawyer)
  • Anthony Morton (Dennis)
  • Johnny Shannon (Harry Flowers)
1A rock music festival in December 1969, which was overshadowed by violence, including one killing and three accidental deaths.2They were mostly concerned with the fact that there wasn't footage of Mick Jagger early enough in the film, and so the lucrative audience provided by the Stones' fanbase might be disappointed.3As befits a friend of Brian Jones. Cammell was closely associated with various Black Magic societies through his friend Kenneth Anger, a well-known Hollywood director and self-styled mystic.4Responsible for such classic 1980s films as Top Gun, among others.

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