Mick Jagger has many acting credits to his name but his most iconic performance came in a cult classic which was denounced as one of the most grotesque cinematic creations when it first came out. Thankfully, it has been rediscovered by critics and newer audiences who have recognised it to be one of the greatest British films ever made.
Titled Performance, this 1970 gem is an avant-garde crime thriller directed by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg which starred Jagger in the first leading role of his career. Before it was released, Warner Bros. expected it to be a huge commercial success because it had Jagger in it and a soundtrack scored by Jack Nitzsche.
However, the studio executives were in for a shock starting from the opening scene itself. They were subjected to a cinematic spectacle that was full of erotic violence that had been conjured up by Cammell and Roeg. In fact, the cinematic experience was so difficult that one executive’s wife ended up vomiting while someone else walked out after shouting: “Are you going to sit here and watch this trash?”
Performance features James Fox as an unhinged gangster who goes on the run after ending the life of his old friend. In order to evade attention, he hides out at a former rock star’s (Jagger) house who is completely washed out. Warner Bros. would not release the film until 1970 when many critics and audiences were horrified by what they saw.
Initially, the Rolling Stones were supposed to star in a Nicholas Ray project or a dystopian adaptation but none of those plans came to fruition. Instead, Performance became the chosen project and the screenplay for it was penned by Cammell who reportedly used psychedelics to conduct an existential examination of violence and sex.
Jagger trained under Marianne Faithfull (his girlfriend at the time) who described the atmosphere as “a psycho-sexual lab . . . a seething cauldron of diabolical ingredients: drugs, incestuous sexual relationships, role reversals, art and life all whipped together in a bitch’s brew.” The production of the film became just as notorious as the film itself.
“All the stories around the filming of those scenes are so good I’m not going to deny any of them,” Jagger responded when asked about the production process. Anita Pallenberg claimed that everyone on set made fun of Fox for not indulging in the rampant drug use because smoking a joint was almost mandatory before filming.
Although it is hailed as an essential cult classic now, one critic called it “the most disgusting, the most completely worthless film” while another referred it to it as “the most loathsome film” of all time. Time has been kind to Performance and it has earned many retrospective accolades, including an individual glory for Jagger whose work was voted as the best acting performance by a musician in a film.