“ You’re a comical little geezer. You’ll look funny when you’re fifty.” James Fox as Chas to Mick Jagger as Turner in Performance.
Last weekend saw the loss of one of the UK’s finest and most admired filmmakers, Nicolas Roeg, who died at 90. 2018 also marks fifty years since the making of his first film as director, the BAFTA-nominated Performance, alongside co-director Donald Cammell starring James Fox, Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg.
To celebrate the anniversary a lavish 348 page book, Performance: The 50th Anniversary of the Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg Cinematic Classic, boasting over 500 images, many previously unseen by the public, will be published on 3rd December 2018, as James Kleinmann reports for HeyUGuys.
The book, by Jay Glennie, takes an in-depth look at the making of the hugely influential film, the reluctance of Warner Bros. to release it without substantial cuts, the initial critical reaction as well as the film’s far reaching legacy. It provides a fascinating insight into the filmmaking process generally and takes a look at the inner workings of the film business of the late Sixties and early Seventies.
Performance examined the London criminal underworld and bohemian counterculture of the 1960s, focusing on a gangster, Chas (James Fox), who goes on the run and takes refuge with a reclusive retired rock star (Mick Jagger).
Glennie rates Nicolas Roeg’s debut as a director as “stunning. It ranks alongside any of the outstanding film debuts in history. It is powerful and still resonates. Nic was ready to make the leap into directing, think of that opening salvo of films: Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth, they stand up against any filmmakers slate.”
Having previously collaborated with Performance producer Sandy Lieberson on a large format book celebrating The Man Who Fell To Earth, the idea for another book came up when Glennie discovered Lieberson had a vast and dusty treasure trove of archive material associated with Performance, much of which has made its way into the finished book including stills, behind the scenes photographs, letters, rare posters and call sheets.
Performance marked Lieberson’s first film as a producer, having previously worked as an agent representing the Rolling Stones for film and TV projects such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil documentary (1968). He thought Donald Cammel’s treatment for what was then called The Liars would be a good fit for his client Mick Jagger, who was cast initially opposite Marlon Brando, before James Fox was eventually cast and the role changed from an American hitman to a London gangster.
As well as Lieberson, Glennie spoke with other key figures for the book including Nicolas Roeg and the film’s two lead actors Mick Jagger and James Fox about their recollections of making the film and their reflections on it fifty years on. He also spoke to many behind the scenes creatives, soundtrack musicians and artists influenced by the film.
Jay Glennie told HeyUGuys he was surprised while researching the book by “the depth of love from across the cast and crew, everybody who worked on the film, aside from perhaps the Warner’s team from that period. The film had a rich and profound impact on them. It’s normal to find some dissenting voices when creating a piece of work centred on one film, but universally the small and tight unit created a real ‘band of brothers’ film and the experience is one of fondness.”
Was Glennie concerned that after fifty years everything had already been written about the film, was there any need for such an elaborate book? “The film had indeed been explored, but I felt never from a first-hand perspective and as you say it’s a pretty elaborate book. It was key for me that Mick Jagger, James Fox, Nic Roeg, Christopher Gibbs and of course Sandy Lieberson all opened up to me. Aligned with Sandy’s extraordinary archives and work from Cecil Beaton, Michael Cooper, Andrew Maclear and Baron Wolman I really think that we have something special and with it being a limited numbered release, something highly collectible.”
Now widely regarded as a cinema classic, reviews for the film upon release, particularly in the US were almost universally scathing, damning even, including Time magazine’s Richard Schickel referring to Performance as “the most disgusting, the most completely worthless film I have seen since I began reviewing.”
As Nicolas Roeg puts it in Glennie’s book “the critics just didn’t get it then, they seem to have had a change of heart over the years.”
The reception in the UK was more mixed, as Glennie details, with praise from some critics such as Derek Malcolm in The Guardian who called the film “richly original, resourceful and imaginative”, while Philip French hailed it as “an urgent, mind-blowing revelation.”
Warner Bros. who had funded the film were less enthusiastic, as Sandy Lieberson recalls in Glennie’s book, with the studio reluctantly agreeing to release Performance only after some substantial edits had been made which meant Mick Jagger would appear on screen earlier and see certain sequences of sex and violence cut by up to seventy percent. Eventually released in 1970 in the USA, it didn’t arrive in UK cinemas until January 1971, playing for just two weeks on a limited release. It went on to receive a single BAFTA nomination for Best Film Editing for Anthony Gibbs.
Reflecting on his role in the film for Glennie’s book, James Fox, who had previously been BAFTA nominated for his work in The Servant (1963) says “I think once in a lifetime you get the chance to help create a character like Chas. I had to transform myself into Chas and then transform from the hard-nosed gangster to somebody who came under the spell of the hippy world. And that was a terrifically interesting thing to do. It was such a range, so I would say it was my best performance.” He goes on to say: “I never followed it up with anything quite as interesting thereafter, but when I came back into the industry after my religious conversion I was fortunate enough to work with the great David Lean on A Passage to India. And I know that it was working on Performance that led to me working with a man whose work I revere so much.”
Fox’s co-star Mick Jagger told Glennie, “I’ve always said that it’s essential that art mirrors the times we live in and I think Performance pulls this off. It wasn’t a script out of nowhere, it was a family affair. Acting wise I think it’s the best film of mine; it’s dark and interesting and really holds up to scrutiny; hell we’re talking about it! It’s hard to believe that we’re still talking about the film 50 years later. Not many films stick around that long. It’s amazing that it has achieved such longevity and interest.”
Considering the film’s legacy Glennie told HeyUGuys, “culturally it has had a huge impact. You only have to see the contributors to my book who talk about the lasting impact of the film on them, the likes of Don Letts, Stephen Woolley, Bill Nighy, Irvine Welsh, Geoff Travis, William Orbit, Paul Schrader, Dean Cavanagh, Jon Savage, Dan Donovan, Jarvis Cocker and Jeannette Lee. From across the arts Performance influences are far-reaching.” According to Glennie the film has inspired the likes of Guy Ritchie and Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast “wouldn’t exist without Performance”.
As filmmaker Stephen Woolley told Glennie, “I loved film and cinema but Performance refused to play by the rules and consequently it was the first film to show me the power of cinema.” It is this cinematic power that continues to resonate with viewers of the film five decades after it was completed.
Jay Glennie’s 50th anniversary numbered limited edition large format book on the making of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s iconic film Performance is published 3rd December 2018 and is available for preorder now.