By Stuart Mitchner
The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness.
—Mick Jagger in Performance
Asked if the line spoken by Turner, the character he plays in Donald Cammell and Nick Roeg’s enduringly outrageous film, could serve as a motto for performing live with the Rolling Stones (“When the Sixties Went Dark,” TLS Dec. 21&28), Jagger admitted “there’s something in it — its more interesting performing on the edge than going through the motions.”
This being Oscar month, I’ve been thinking about performers and performing and how when Warner Bros bankrolled a film called Performance in 1968, studio executives thought they’d scored another Hard’s Day’s Night. The Rolling Stones might be lowlifes, the dark side of the Beatles, but they were the second biggest rock group on the planet, and with Mick Jagger starring, there was sure to be a best-selling soundtrack album. Money in the bank! What Warners got instead was Swinging London in hell, the Citizen Kane of decadence, unremitting cinematic anarchy swarming with sex and drugs, and not a word from Mick Jagger for the first hour, just a heavy dose of London underworld mayhem featuring James Fox as a ruthless enforcer on the run after killing someone against the mob boss’s orders. By the time Jagger entered, he was swallowed up in the chaos described in Jay Glennie’s Performance: The Making of a Classic as “a heady cocktail of hallucinogenic mushrooms, sex (homosexual and three-way), violence, amalgamated identities, and artistic references to Jorge Luis Borges, Magritte, and Francis Bacon.”
According to legend, the wife of a Warners executive vomited during a test screening; the studio seriously considered destroying the negative; and at a sneak preview, most of the audience walked out. Shelved for two years, the film was savaged by reviewers when it was finally released in 1970. If there had been an Academy Awards category based on the reviews, Performance would have copped the Oscar for the most pretentious, repellent, disgusting, fundamentally rotten, and completely worthless motion picture of 1970. more