Took a trip in Powis Square/Pop star dyed his hair
No fans to scream and shout/When mobsters came to flush him out
Gangland slaying underground/New identity must be found
On the left bank for a while/Insanity Bohemian style
The second verse of Big Audio Dynamite’s E=MC2 is a perfect recap of the plot of ‘Performance’, Mick Jagger’s film debut, which was made in 1968 and came out in 1970. The song also contains a dozen samples from the clip including “Why don’t you play us a tune, pal?”, “Comical little geezer. You’ll look funny when you’re fifty.” and my personal favourite “I like a bit of a cavort”.
45 years on and after a period of reappraisal, Performance has been called the best ever British gangster movie, the best psychedelic movie and the best Swinging London movie. It would certainly seem to be to be a spot on portrait of the late 60s Chelsea scene: rock stars, drugs, sex, decadence, money and more drugs. Just the sort of life you imagine Mick and the Stones themselves were living, out in Chelsea, in a bohemian set of posh people with good taste but too much money.
The film wasn’t well received at the time though, most outraged reviewers focusing on the sex and drugs. Rolling Stone said: ‘We would not recommend seeing it while tripping‘, Time magazine said ‘The most disgusting the most completely worthless film I have ever seen since I began reviewing’ and the New York Times gave us ‘You do not have to be a drug addict, pederast, sado-masochist or nitwit to enjoy Performance, but being one or more of those things would help.’
It’s certainly very violent and very rude. There’s only one F bomb, but there is a lot of nudity and sex, especially for 1968, lots of gratuitous close ups of nipples, threeways and a very ambiguous bit of romantic activity between Mick Jagger and co-star James Fox. Jagger himself only appears after 42 minutes, although he doesn’t actually say anything till 46 minutes, because for the first 4 minutes, he’s enjoying a menage a trois with two girls. In fact he doesn’t say anything for the first 8 minutes because he then has a bath with them both. Why not I say.
This was Mick Jagger’s first film. The following year he made ‘Ned Kelly’ – many wish he hadn’t – but oddly the Rolling Stones never made a film in their mid-Sixties heyday, when pop stars were making films at the drop of a hat. They had had offers, especially Jagger, who was apparently in the running for the role of Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange. Donald Cammell was a posh Chelsea friend who had a screenplay Jagger liked, so with the world’s biggest rock star attached, there was little difficulty getting the budget of £1.1 million from Warner Brothers. Warners were expecting some slightly bohemian, psychedelic Swinging Sixties A Hard Day’s Night with the Rolling Stones.
How wrong they were.
It’s actually posh, old Harrovian actor James Fox’s film. He plays Chas, a violent member of an East London gang led by Harry Flowers. When he kills a bookie without Flowers’ approval, he has to go into hiding before he can leave the country. He overhears a conversation at Paddington about a room for rent in a house, assumes a new name and turns up wanting a room. The house belongs to Turner, a reclusive former rock star, who lives there with two girls. Then first half si a cracking Sixties gangster movie, ace suits, great motors and lovely shots of 1968 London. The rest of the film though is basically lots of sex and drugs as they explore each other and merge into one, with a very ambiguous and very violent ending.
Fox was not known as a method actor but he completely immersed himself in the role. He trained three times a week at the Thomas A Beckett gym above the pub on the Old Kent Road and was assigned a guy called David Litvinoff to transform him into an East End thug. What helped was that Litvinoff – memorably described as ‘a man for whom there are few truly reliable facts and it is unclear how genuine his expertise really was’ – was in fact a real East End thug. When Keith Richards and Mick had been busted the previous year and had wanted to find out who had ratted them out to the Old Bill, Litvinoff was charged with finding out who. Which he did by kidnapping a suspect and beating the crap out of him – before deciding it wasn’t him after all.
Turner’s two concubines in the film were played by Anita Pallenberg, fellow Stone Brian Jones’s ex and Keith Richard’s current girlfriend, and Michèle Breton, a young French girl who had in fact lived with Donald Cammell and his wife in a menage a trois, where she had replaced Anita Pallenberg in a similar arrangement. Jagger based his character in a mixture of Brian Jones who was by this point a rather weak, washed out drug addict, and Keith Richards who was going the same way but was altogether tougher.
Turner’s house is shown in the film to be 81 Powis Square W11, although no such house existed or existed. They actually used 25 Powis Square on the corner of Talbot Road W11 for exterior shots and changed the number to protect the innocent. But the interiors and the vast majority of the film was shot almost entirely on location inside 15 Lowndes Square, Belgravia, a crumbling mansion they rented for 3 months. They even built sets inside the house because it was cheaper than going to a proper studio.
The house was owned by Captain Leonard Plugge, a colourful and wealthy man, whose collection of paintings apparently including many Rembrandts, Rubens and Velasquezes had to be insured for £2m. The pictures were removed and stashed with the caretaker who disappeared shortly afterwards as did the pictures. He was caught 2 weeks later at Paddington Station after selling the paintings at auction for only £3,800 as they were actually all fakes.
Performance benefited from a lack of interference from Warner Bros. studio executives, who believed they were getting a Rolling Stones equivalent of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. They might not have been quite so hands-off if they’d known about the rampant drug use on set. The art director said ‘You took one breath and you got stoned.’ Someone else quipped that the drug supply was more reliable than the location catering. ‘You want to get a joint, they’re coming out your earholes. You want a cup of tea, you got no chance.’
The soundtrack was meant to be completed by Jagger and Richard but the sex scenes between Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg were so realistic that rumours flew around that they were real. Keith refused though to come over a watch the filming, but when he heard the rumours, he apparently took to sitting in his Bentley outside the house where the film was being shot, stewing in his own juices. Needless to say, he refused to write anything for the soundtrack. He says that he did get revenge by having a one nighter with Mick’s girlfriend Marianne Faithfull in Mick’s bed at 48 Cheyne Walk, where he had to jump out of the window leaving his socks behind when Mick came home early. Bizarrely Mick and Marianne and Keith and Anita all went on holiday together by boat from Lisbon to Brazil once the film had wrapped
Filming was done by November 1968 so they made a rough cut of the film to show Warners. They were were outraged, one executive’s wife apparently vomited with shock. More re-edits were ordered, removing a lot of the bloodshed and putting Jagger earlier in the film but it sat on a shelf for a year until Warners was sold in 1970 and the new owners looked at their inventory and thought ‘hang on we’ve got a film with Mick Jagger that had cost over 1 million dollars and it hasn’t been released for two years?’
Performance finally opened in the USA in August 1970 with most voices dubbed because the studio had feared that Americans would find their Cockney accents difficult to understand. It was a box office and critical disaster. It opened here on 4 January 1971 at the Warner West End in Leicester Square, but got an adults-only X certificate which made sure that young Stones fans had no chance of seeing it. It also meant that most of the newspapers refused to review it.
Jagger is one of the only ones to emerge from Performance unscathed. Making Performance had such an effect on James Fox that he didn’t make another film for over 10 years. He became an evangelical Christian, working with an evangelical group called the Navigators and devoting himself to the ministry. He only returned to the screen in 1982 and since has worked steadily indeed.
Both Anita Pallenberg – who was Keith Richard’s partner for the next ten years with whom he had three children, one of whom died – and Michelle Breton succumbed to serious drugs. Donald Cammell only made two more films and when his film Wild Side was cut by the producer, he committed suicide in Hollywood by shooting himself. His wife claimed he wanted a mirror so that he could watch himself die and asked her if his injuries resembled those inflicted in the final frames of Performance.