Looking Back on the Making of Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Performance’

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“The film is about the perverted love affair between homo sapiens and lady violence. In common with subject, it’s necessary, horrifying, paradoxical and absurd to make such a film means accepting that the subject is loaded with every taboo in the book,” said Mick Jagger and Donald Cammell’s in a letter to Warner Brothers about their 1970 wonder of a film, Performance. “You seem to want to emasculate the most savage and most effective scenes in our movie. If Performance does not upset audiences, it’s nothing. If this fact upsets you, the alternative is to sell it fast and no more bullshit.”

Originally conceived as a lighthearted romp starring Marlon Brando, the resulting film—starring Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, and James Fox—as anything but. Telling the story of upper-crust cockney gangster who, in an attempt to flee the men looking to retaliate against his humiliating transgressions, hides away in Powis Square, London in the bohemian refuge of an eccentric former rock legend and his lover(s).

As Cammell and Jagger stated in their letter,Performance is an ferocious and indulgent film that unapologetically explores sex, drugs, and rock and roll with the sense of danger and immediacy that hung like an omnipresent force at the end of the 1960s. Having produced the feature, which was directed by Cammell and reigning king of “out-of-focus, sparkling-chandelier-light haze reminiscent of fantastical winter nights of intoxication” Nicolas Roeg, Warner Brothers was shocked by the film upon seeing the first cut. Disgusted with the content, the studio wanted to deny its theatrical release, desiring for even the negative to be destroyed.

But after endless fighting and Roeg slipping off to film Walkabout, eventually the film would have its theatrical release in 1970, albeit heavily edited and chopped. Yet for all the controversy surrounding its initial release, Performance has become not only a cult classic but one of the most fantastic films of the 1970s. Heavily influenced by everything from the writing of Jorge Luis Borges and the paintings of Francis Bacon, the film sported the tagline “Vice. And Versa,” referring to its heavy themes of sexuality and identity.

Melding the classic gangster film with art house psychosexual (and psychotropic) exploration, Performance plays with our perception of character, asking us to examine the way we views ourselves, how we wish to be perceived by the others around us, and the myriad people lurking in the subconscious under our neatly packaged cognitive self. But even surrounding its darker, deeper thematic fancies, there are so many elements to the film that make it absolutely unique and fascinating to watch again and again and again.

Through the frenetic and dizzying editing style, we’re lulled into a sort of trance that blurs the lines between reality and imagination, fully transporting us inside the all-encompassing magical den of a home the film takes place in. The editing is so sharp and so alive, you can watch the film hundreds of time and still never have the same experience—it’s as if the cinematic world they’ve created has a life force and heartbeat of its own that comes alive and sings for you every new time you press play.

And as James Fox’s gangster character Chas is forced to assume a new identity, Jagger’s Turner and Pallenberg’s Pherber help him to do so—but not only physically (as they take turns draping him in suits and silks and wigs), but bestowing upon him an interior exploration of himself by feeding him a large amount of hallucinogenic mushrooms—setting off all a shimmering kaleidoscope view of the world, full of violence and confusion but also of unseen beauty.

So whether or not you’ve seen the film (which you can rent on iTunes now) or not, it’s certainly a pleasure to take some time to enjoy an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the film with Influence and Controversy: The Making of Performance below. Also make sure to watch one of the film’s best scene HERE.