Performance, the 1970 British crime drama directed by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, was once deemed so controversial that Warner Brothers held its release and demanded it to be re-cut and a somewhat eventful test screening.
The film, co-starring James Fox and Mick Jagger, was supposed to portray a “violent and ambitious London gangster who, after carrying out an unordered killing, goes into hiding at the home of a reclusive rock star”. While it achieved its immediate goals, Performance descended into a sordid story which delved deep into the exploration of a dark relationship between sex and violence.
“After killing a rival in self-defence, hoodlum Chas (James Fox) must flee both from the law and from his boss, Harry Flowers,” the film’s synopsis reads. “He eventually moves into a house owned by Turner (Mick Jagger), a former rock star who lives with female companions Pherber and Lucy. Chas and Turner initially clash, but Turner becomes fascinated with Chas’ life as a criminal. Through drugs and a series of psychological battles with Turner, Chas emerges a different man.”
The film was produced in 1968 but, given the extent of its sexual content and graphic violence, Warner Brothers held on to the completed project for a couple of years before deciding to release it in 1970. This, it would seem, was a bitter two-year struggle by directors Cammell and Roeg to get their project to the big screen as the nervous reluctance of the project’s financers debated the impact of the picture.
Putting the film to a damning test, Warner Brothers staged a preview test screening in order to gauge some reactions from cinema executives, members of the press and actors. What ensued was a mass walkout and, at one point, a film executive’s wife reportedly throwing up in the cinema.
According to co-director Nicolas Roeg, the post-screening party was a surreal affair: “The guests were walking away from us,” Roeg once said in reflection. “We found ourselves in a room on our own, we were pariahs.”
Studio executives were left in a state of shock following the preview evening, a response that many had expected but dared not to believe. With the notoriety of the film building, Warner Brothers hired Frank Mazzola to join the project and perform a major re-editing job.
Finally, the film managed to resemble something that satisfied Warner Brothers and was given its theatrical release on August 3rd, 1970 to somewhat mixed reviews. Despite some UK critics enjoying the final result, Variety labeled the film “needless, boring sadism,” Los Angeles Times branded it a “pretentious and repellent little film” that “cannot rise above the world it pretends to examine” and The Washington Post claimed that both Cammell and Roeg had done a “fundamentally rotten” job.
Meanwhile, given the changes and international regulations of cinema, numerous different edits were rolled out in various countries to satisfy the rules of acceptability which caused even more unintentional mystery around the original concept.
Despite its struggles, many argued that Performance was a film well ahead of its time and, in the late 1970s and 1980s, it started to gain the cult following it duly deserved. Fast-forward 20 years after its initial release and Performance had risen to the top of the pile, squirming its way through the mire of negative reviews that had once tried to pin it down into the abyss.
When co-director Cammell passed away in 1996, the film’s stock had risen to heights neither he, his partner in crime Roeg, nor the wife of the film executive with vomit flashbacks in her mind could barely believe. Performance, believe it or not, ended up being voted the 48th greatest British film of all time by the British Film Institute.
Over the years sensationalist stories of the filming had grown in tandem with its popularity and many began to beg for answers. Were the sex scenes between Anita Pallenberg, Michele Breton and Mick Jagger real? Was this film the reason for Keith Richards slip into heroin addiction? Nobody really knew.
When interviewed for a new book, some of the questions surrounding the infamous film were put to Jagger, who simply fuelled the fire by saying: “All the stories around the filming of those scenes are so good I’m not going to deny any of them,” with a wry smile on his face.
As Jagger’s character Turner says in the film “the only performance that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness.”