With the recent passing of The Rolling Stones’ muse Anita Pallenberg, this week’s screening of the cult classic Performance at the Belcourt Theatre’s Music City Monday event couldn’t be more timely. Pallenberg, Mick Jagger and James Fox are all featured in this countercultural crime drama that finds a wounded mobster holing-up in the decaying mansion of a reclusive rock star and the ladies who share his bed. This scenario finds Performance delivering on all of its sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll promise, but the movie continues to find new viewers because of its dazzling photography and editing, its inventive use of sound and its deeper examining of the links between artistic performance, madness and identity.
Chas (James Fox) is an enforcer for an East London gang. Chas uses his penchant for cruelty and violence to intimidate and coerce anyone who threatens the business of his boss, Harry Flowers. But when Chas winds up on the wrong side of Flowers’ favor, he finds himself on the run from the gang he used to call his own. Chas colors his hair, assumes a new name and ends up hiding out in the decadent abode of a washed-up rock star named Turner (Mick Jagger). At first Chas is put-off by the perverse, bohemian lifestyle and free love values Turner shares with his bisexual housemates Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michelle Breton). But little by little, Turner and Chas start to influence and mirror one another in a surreal face-off, pitting Chas’ traditional tough guy masculinity against Turner’s androgynous, theatrical persona.
Lots of movies from the 1960s are still labeled “lurid” or “wild” because they caused scandals when they were released half a century ago during those days of cultural revolution. That said, many of those films – Blow Up comes to mind – now seem coyly charming with their peeks of nudity and hints at forbidden desires. Performance, on the other hand, seems thoroughly preoccupied with sex and violence, and the editing of the sights and sounds in the film’s famous opening sequence alone confuses every wince, groan, slap and caress into a montage of sensations that still seems as intense and skanky as the best Keith Richards solos.
In its original form, Donald Cammell wrote Performance as a comedic romp – a lighthearted look at London counterculture in the swinging '60s. But under the influence of the work of Agentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and the theatrical philosophies of Antonin Artaud, Cammell’s drafts of the screenplay grew increasingly darker. Warner Bros. was originally hoping to get The Rolling Stones version of The Beatles’ A Hard Days Night (1964), and one might argue that the milieu at Turner’s pad seems a lot like the one the British tabloid press captured during The Rolling Stones’ infamous “girl in the rug” drug bust at Keith Richards’ country estate in 1967 – the year before Performance was produced. When Warner Bros. got Cammell and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg’s (the pair are credited as co-directors) finished product, they demanded changes. A deft Cammell supervised edits to satisfy the studio while also making the overall feel of the film even more hallucinatory. After threatening to shelve the movie, Warner Bros. eventually released the film in 1970 when it quickly became a cult phenomenon. The movie is now regarded as one of the most influential and innovative British films of all time.
Warner Bros. was also hoping the Performance soundtrack would comprise a new album by The Rolling Stones, but rumors that Mick Jagger’s sex scenes with Anita Pallenberg were anything but play acting drove a wedge between the singer and Pallenberg’s then-boyfriend Keith Richards. However, this Music City Mondays pick comes along with a soundtrack full of nuggets featuring contributions by Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Lowell George and composer Jack Nitzche. Merry Clayton might be best known for her standout singing on The Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter,” and her vibrant vocals adorn three tracks here alongside the lone Stones contribution, “Memo from Turner.”
Performance is a chestnut of psychedelic '60s cinema, but unlike the usual exploitation fare of the era, it’s a sophisticated examination of self-perception and self-expression through the lens of sex and drugs. The movie hits high gear by the time Chas becomes part of the scene at Turner’s mansion, which is almost literally a house of mirrors where Chas lies about being a juggler before the influences of Turner, Pherber and Lucy slowly start pulling at the loose ends of the gangster’s identity.
Performance screens at the Belcourt Aug. 7 at 7:30 P.M.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.