Donald Cammell was raised in a home “filled with magicians, metaphysicians, spiritualists and demons” and spent his childhood bouncing on the knee of “the wickedest man in the world” Aleister Crowley. Originally a painter, he became a screenwriter before meeting the Rolling Stones through Anita Pallenberg.
Performance was supposed to be a light-hearted swinging ’60s romp, but it ended up being what John Simon of New York Magazine called “the most vile film ever made.” It’s the story of two men*, Chas (James Fox), a brutal street thug, and Turner (Mick Jagger), a rock star who has gone into hiding.
Chas was a member of an East London gang, a man of violence who is prized for his ability to get money for his employer Harry Flowers. However, his complicated past with another gangster and that man’s murder has ostracized him from the gang and put him on the run and into the orbit of Turner and his two women, Pherber (Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton).
By the end of the film, fuelled by drugs, cross-cutting techniques, a disjointed narrative and no small amount of magic, the two men have switched identities, with Chas displaying Turner’s face and Turner, well, not having a face any longer.
Warner Brothers thought that with Jagger in the movie they getting a Rolling Stones movie that young people could go see. Instead, they got a movie filled with drugs, sex, violence and ideas about cross-dressing and sex transforming identity that would still be dangerous half a century later.
The behind the scenes events — the house in Lowndes Square used in the film was investigated for drugs, Keith Richards was outside in a car fuming because Jagger and Anita were really having sex, Fox stopped acting for fifteen years to become an evangelical Christian — are just as interesting as the film, but the movie itself is astounding.
It was almost unreleased, as a Warner exec would complain, “Even the bathwater was dirty” and the wife of one of them would throw up at the premiere. Ken Hyman, the leader of Warner Brothers, decided that “no amount of editing, re-looping or re-scheduling would cover up the fact that the picture ultimately made no sense.” The film was shelved for two years until Hyman left and even then, the movie was re-edited and the Cockney accents were redubbed.
Time has been kind to Performance, a movie that points out the juxtaposition between the violent lives of East End with the rock and roll world of London. “A Memo to Turner” predates music videos. Bands from Coil to Big Audio Dynamite and Happy Mondays all referenced or sampled the movie while it’s been an influence on so many directors.
As for Cammell, he struggled against the mainstream after this movie — and with Marlon Brando, who kept asking him to write films and then deciding not to make them — before making Demon Seed, a film that deals with transformative sexuality, just like Performance. He’d make White of the Eye and Wild Side before killing himself with a shotgun. Kevin Macdonald (co-director of the story of his life, Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance), said “He didn’t kill himself because of years of failure. He killed himself because he had always wanted to kill himself.”
I held back watching this for years, because I wanted to make sure that I was ready for it. I needed to be prepared for this film, to not use it as wallpaper or background noise. It deserved more than that. And I’m glad I waited. It was worth it.
*It’s directed by two men as well, Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, who would go on to make Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Witches.