Performance: The Making Of Britain's Greatest Post-War Film

Real-life gangsters, rampant drug use and the near-destruction of the Rolling Stones - just three reasons why Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance remains Britain’s greatest post-war motion picture.
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Real-life gangsters, rampant drug use and the near-destruction of the Rolling Stones - just three reasons why Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance remains Britain’s greatest post-war motion picture.
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"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".

It’s not a perfect summary of the plot of Performance, but this, the first verse of Big Audio Dynamite’s 'E=MC2', says much about the cult appeal of the British psychedelic gangster movie. Formed by Clash guitarist Mick Jones, BAD’s debut single paid tribute to the films of Nicolas Roeg, and in so doing not only summarised the director’s memorable debut but also spliced a number of Performance dialogue samples into the mix (“I don’t send solicitors’ letters,” “I don’t think I’m going to let you stay in the film business”). Nor were Jones and Co alone in paying homage to Performance through song. On Bummed, the second album from Manchester’s Happy Mondays, the track 'Mad Cyril' kicked off with James Fox intoning “We’ve been courteous”, before proceeding to make reference to both the movie and its infamous, unseen enforcer.

If you weren’t around when it was released, the chances are your first exposure to Performance was through one of the aforementioned songs. Failing that, if you're British, you might have been lucky enough to catch it on Moviedrome, the BBC’s Sunday night movie strand hosted by Repo Man director Alex Cox. In his introduction to the film, Cox made Performance sound every bit as exotic and brain-bending as the Mondays and BAD. But then, when the movie began, it became immediately apparent that speech and song had ill-prepared me for how extraordinary Performance truly was.

Watching the above events open mouthed in the mid-80s, you could but imagine what audiences made of the movie on its release in 1970. Commencing with the launch of a rocket, Performance’s envelope-pushing made the previous year’s Apollo Moon mission seem like a walk into town. And while his fellow rock star David Bowie was busy singing about Major Tom, Mick Jagger transformed from Rolling Stone to astronaut, his mission to take the human mind to places beyond the reach of all but the most potent hallucinogens.

"On Bummed, the track 'Mad Cyril' kicked off with Happy Mondays' James Fox intoning 'We’ve been courteous', before proceeding to make reference to both the movie and its infamous, unseen enforcer."

If this sounds like overstatement, it’s important to point out the roles environment and experience play in one's appreciation of Performance. For example, if you were raised in a “Bohemian atmosphere” similar to that of the film’s protagonists, the events depicted might not seem that remarkable. But if you were brought up in a leafy London suburb on a diet of Elkie Brooks and Abba, the world brought to life by Roeg and Cammell seemed utterly fascinating. Gangsters, rock stars, ultra-violence - Performance was a vehicle for the verboten. And while you didn’t have to agree with the film’s suggestion that psychedelic drugs and androgynous sex might be the avenue to the better life, you couldn’t deny that it was an intriguing message.

A taboo-lacerating work, Performance was made more beguiling still by its back-story. A film that so disturbed its leading man he quit the industry for a decade, Roeg and Cammell’s film also sowed the seeds of  discontent between the Rolling Stones. The on-set presence of real-life “chaps” such as John Bindon and David Litvinoff also learnt the picture an authenticity completely at odds with the cock’er’nee swagger of The Italian Job. Indeed, no British gangster film has come close to Performance for atmosphere. When American execs saw the film, they talked of a pervading air of menace. Repulsed, the shelved the picture for two years, a release only being secured after Cammell and Jagger petitioned the studio. But as much as polite society tried to restrain Performance, this ultimate celebration of excess refused to be bound. And even today, with the picture only recently released on DVD, Performance continues to draw film fans towards its sinisterly beguiling glow.

Performance seems all the more extraordinary when you consider that it was its directors’ debut film. An acclaimed cinematographer (he lensed The Masque Of The Red Death for Roger Corman and Far From The Madding Crowd for John Schlesinger), Nicolas Roeg had long been waiting for a chance to helm a picture when he found himself collaborating with the Edinburgh-born Donald Cammell. An impossibly exotic figure, Cammell was the heir to the Cammell-Laird shipping fortune whose father, Charles, had written the biography of arch-diabolist Aleister Crowley. A society painter before he turned to moving pictures, Cammell was a hedonist whose interests included threesomes and dating underage girls. He was also a friend of the rich and famous who counted Mick Jagger and Marlon Brando as best buds.

One of the often asked questions about Performance is who actually directed the film? Since Roeg has such an impressive CV (Walkabout, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bad Timing, Insignificance to name but a very few) the tendency is to grant him the lion’s share of the credit. But while Cammell’s CV is far sparser (he completed only three other films - Demon Seed, the massively underrated White Of The Eye and Wild Side), leading man Mick Jagger is in no doubt who the real brains behind the bacchanalia was. “Nic Roeg wasn’t the director of Performance,” explained the Rolling Stone in interviews, “certainly not in the way that you and I think of it. Certainly not of the acting.”

Jagger’s involvement was crucial to the coming together and completion of Performance. Indeed, if one of your leading characters is a retired singer with criminal tendencies, who's better qualified to play the role than the biggest rock star of the planet who only the year before had been arrested for cannabis possession during the infamous Redlands bust. In addition to bringing bankability to the project, Jagger also lent Performance an intriguing subtext. At the very moment Mick agreed to play the role of Turner, a pop performer who has said goodbye to fame in order to screw and drug his way into obscurity, Stones guitarist Brian Jones was following a very similar course of action.

Crippled by his addictions, Jones rapidly went from rock guitarist to recluse, a transformation that’s touched upon in the motion picture Stoned. However, if you can’t be bothered to check out Stephen Woolley’s botched biopic, Jagger’s work in Performance will give you a good idea of the torment Jones was going through as well as the effect it was having on his bandmates.

Not that the barrel-chested guitarist was the only Stone who was doing it tough. For while Jagger romped with Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards, the ex-model's then-boyfriend, raised hell, convinced his best friend was at it with his old lady. As it turned out, Mick was closer to James Fox than the comely Swede, with Cammell describing their friendship as bordering on a "romance". Still, if you'd driven into Lowndes Square in 1968, the chances are you'd have found Keef sat in his car, his eyes darting about with jealousy rather than a pharmaceutical aid.

And while the Stones were busy imploding, James Fox was getting to know some very interesting people. Johnny Shannon was an old school 'character' and boxing second who'd been in Henry Cooper's corner when he flattened Cassius Clay. Through Shannon, Fox, until then almost exclusively known for playing foppish types, learnt how to dress and talk like a 'chap'. He also learnt how to box, becoming so good that Shannon let him have a pop at one of his pupils: "Jimmy loved it. He caught the other bloke on the nose and when the blood started to flow, you saw Jimmy's eyes light up. He was a good strong boy, Jimmy".

"While Cammell’s CV is far sparser, Mick Jagger is in no doubt who the real brains behind the film was. 'Nic Roeg wasn’t the director of Performance,' he explained, 'certainly not in the way that you and I think of it. Certainly not of the acting'."

Fox's transformation into East End tough was completed through consultations with David Litvinoff and John Bindon. Infamous for his association with Princess Margaret, Bindon's other claims to fame included supporting roles in Get Carter and Ken Loach's Poor Cow and a medal for bravery that was awarded to him after he rescued a man from drowning; a man many people believe Bindon was actually trying to murder. Litvinoff, meanwhile, was almost an amalgamation of London's most infamous 'identities' Ronnie and Reggie Kray. Homosexual, violent but with incredible connections, Litvinoff illustrated how the underbelly had become a part of everyday society. As such, he was the perfect person to teach the aristocratic Fox how to enjoy a "bit of a cavort".

But still things weren't heady enough for Cammell. So he threw his girlfriend Michelle Breton - a French model with a thing for troiism - into the mix. And he cast his advisers Bindon and Shannon, the latter landing the key part of gay gang boss Harry Flowers. At last, the madhouse was open for business. And once Cammell and Roeg were done filming, James Fox was only fit for asylum living.

The 10 years Fox spent away from movies, doing good works for the Navigators christian charity, is often seized upon as an example of Performance's wretched excess. The actor himself admits that his mind was blown long before he made the movie - the death of his father and an experiment with the hallucinogen DMT having left him ripe for a nervous breakdown. But there were those who walked away from the movie badly wounded: Michelle Breton returned to France and lapsed into heroin addiction, and drugs also played a destructive role in Anita Pallenberg's life

Those who talk about the 'curse of Performance' seem to base their superstitious nonsense less on the film's fallout than on the troubling nature of the picture. The truth of the matter is, no one walks away from Performance unscathed - that's what makes it so special. In an age where people talk about going to the multiplex to 'veg out', Cammell and Roeg demand a lot of their audience, and take a large chunk of its innocence into the bargain.

In the final balance, there's no doubt that we the viewer come out of this deal best. Exhilarating and intoxicating, suffocating and annihilating - if Performance was a drug, its street value would be astronomical. It's as Jagger's revitalised Turner explains, "The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness."