February 6, 2019

Going All the Way: Mick Jagger and the Madness of “Performance”

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.

“Gimme Shelter”

Half a century ago Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones were reimagining the grim dynamics of the time in songs like “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Midnight Rambler,” and “Gimme Shelter,” with its hair-raising, passionately sung chorus “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.” And thanks mainly to “Street Fighting Man,” Jagger was being patronized by the New Left as politically relevant and fully committed to the revolution when the one and only thing he was “fully committed” to was performing, and as critic Richard Poirier puts it in his breakthrough book The Performing Self (1970), “performance partakes of brutality.”

What happened during the making of Performance resonates with the brutal downward spiral of Brian Jones, the Stones’ most explosive member, who died a year later under suspicious circumstances. In Up and Down with the Rolling Stones (1979), photographer Tony Sanchez describes Marianne Faithfull coaching Jagger on how to play Turner: “You’ve got to imagine you’re Brian: poor, freaked-out, deluded, androgynous, druggie Brian. But you also need just a bit of Keith [Richards] in it: his tough, self-destructive, beautiful lawlessness. You must become a mixture of the way Brian and Keith will be when the Stones are over and they are alone in their fabulous houses with all the money in the world and nothing to spend it on.”

In fact, Performance takes place in the fabulous disorder of Turner’s domain, the basement of a Notting Hill Gate mansion, a piece of performance art in itself, where the retired rock star spends his time basking in a bed and bath ménage à trois with Anita Pallenburg and Michéle Breton. This is the “freak show” James Fox’s killer-on-the-run Chas finds when he comes looking for shelter. Because both directors reportedly urged members of the cast to take drugs and have sex, nothing but the real thing, both Jagger and Fox were drained, according to Sanchez, “for they were being forced to question the very roots of their beings. James, particularly, was becoming as dangerously disoriented off screen as he was on. And Jagger, too, seemed to have become Brian; he was beginning to crack up and lose his identity. The two would smoke DMT together in their dressing room so that they could add realism to the drug scenes. But the drug has the hydrogen bomb impact of a twelve-hour acid trip crammed into the space of fifteen minutes and served to only alienate them further from the real world.”

A Cockney Rhapsody

One of the saving graces of Performance is in the language and atmosphere, a heady amalgam of Dickens and Pinter, with intimations of Borges, Andy Warhol, William S. Burroughs, and Hassan i Sabah. Instead of singing, Mick reads aloud from Borges’s “The South,” quotes Burroughs without naming him (“Nothing is true — everything is permitted”), and reads a long passage relevant to the situation concerning Hassan and the “young men whom he had chosen to be his Hashishi, his assassins, to be given a potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and to be carried into the garden, so that when they awoke, they believed they were in Paradise. And there were damsels and young girls there, who dallied with them to their hearts’ content.”

In between prolonged feats of graphic violence, most of which are performed and suffered by Fox’s suave sadist Chas, the voices of the London underworld sing a veritable Cockney rhapsody led by gang boss Harry Flowers, played with gusto by Johnny Shannon, who had real-life mob connections. The flummoxed execs at Warners actually dubbed over the accents, afraid that an American audience wouldn’t understand. According to Donald Cammell, “One thing we hadn’t anticipated was the language problem. In the gangster scenes, the south-London patois was spot on but a bit specialised even for other parts of London, let alone America. The studio people would sit at the screenings with strained expressions as though this was a Japanese movie with Czech subtitles.”

   One thing you can say for Harry and his lads is that they clearly enunciate every Soho-salty syllable, in contrast to the night world language of the stoned out Notting Hill Gate underground where everyone speaks and moves as if in a dream. In fact, the gangsters are the real performers. Jagger and the others, and even eventually Fox, are like existential moving parts in a visual phantasmagoria based on Cammell’s stranger-in-a-strange-land concept and Roeg’s visual style of impressionistically fragmented cross-cutting, a cinematic variation on Burroughs’s literary cut-up technique similar to what he calls “disease on the image track” in The Ticket That Exploded.

Mick’s Memo

When Jagger finally does perform a song, he does it with savage sneering authority in a directorial fantasy wherein Turner’s rock star gone underground turns the tables on the gangsters of the first hour, stripping and unmanning them, the Soho heavies reduced to naked comic relief on a level with the slapstick gang lusting for Ringo’s ring in Richard Lester’s Help. Now Mick’s the man behind the desk with slicked-back hair and a suit and tie (“You gentlemen, why, you all work for me”) as he sneers and snarls his way through “Memo from Turner,” spewing lines laced with bits of Burroughs: “You’re the man who squats behind the man who works the soft machine” and “I remember you in Hemlock Road in 1956, you’re a faggy little leather boy with a smaller piece of stick.”

What makes the song and flavors the whole film, along with the anarchic spirit of Burroughs, is the playing of the other American on the scene, Ry Cooder, whose rich, crystalline, gorgeously gritty slide guitar is as crucial to the ambiance of Performance as it will be a decade later in a far greater film, Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas.

Oscar Night Fantasy

I keep having this fantasy of an Oscar night telecast where Fox and Jagger show up to accept the award for most pretentious, repellent, disgusting, fundamentally rotten, and completely worthless motion picture of 1970. The stars are there in place of Cammell and Roeg, who have wisely avoided the festivities due to not entirely playful threats of tarring and feathering. Best case scenario, the Oscar would be presented by the Warner exec’s wife who famously vomited, all smiles now that Performance is already on the way to cult status as everyone’s favorite Midnight Movie. Jagger and Fox are engaged in the usual banter, both in character. At one point Jagger puts on a rubber mask and becomes Chas as Fox becomes Turner, playing out the identity dynamic of a film where the utimate achievement of the madness of performance is the film itself, which finally makes it, really makes it, by going all the way.


James Fox (born 1939) and Mick Jagger (born 1943) are still performing, Fox in the series London Spy and as Lord Aysgarth in Downton Abbey, and Sir Mick with the Stones on the No Filter Tour, which is scheduled for Met Life Stadium June 13 and June 17. Nick Roeg (1928-2018) died last November at 90, and Donald Cammell (1934-1996) committed suicide in April 1996.