Cult Movie: Performance the ultimate swinging London comedown movie

Mick Jagger and James Fox – identities are fused in a mad psychedelic way
Ralph McLean

THE impressive 30 Under 30 project, a season of must-see films presented by Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast Film Festival, Cinemagic, the Nerve centre and Strand Arts Centre, has already thrown up some true cult classics in the past few weeks.

Backtracking through 45 years of blistering big screen beauty, audiences in Belfast and Derry have already been exposed to fresh screenings of everything from Amelie to Empire Of The Sun and doubtless dozens of new eyes have been opened to all kinds of cinematic possibilities along the way.

In terms of sheer visceral punch, though, Performance (which shows at Belfast’s Beanbag cinema this Tuesday night) is right up there with the very best that the season has to offer.

A decidedly odd and occasionally ugly study of a late-60s London where debauched rock stars intermingle with suited-and-booted crime lords, it’s a film that still weaves an odd magic.

It’s the tale of Chas (played by a suave but clearly unhinged James Fox), a psycho East End gangster who needs a place to lie low while the heat dies down after an ill-advised murder puts him in his bosses' bad books. He finds the perfect place in a crumbling London townhouse belonging to a reclusive former rock superstar called Mr Turner (played with Rolling Stone ease by a delightfully dishevelled Mick Jagger) who lives a life of sex and drugs decadence with a brace of female partners that includes Keith Richards' then girlfriend Anita Pallenberg.

Turner’s world is alien to buttoned-down hard man Chas but before long he’s dragged headlong into it and identities are fused in a mad psychedelic way.

Made in 1968 but only released officially in 1970 after Warner Brothers insisted on extensive changes, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s jagged and jarring tale of the grey area where rock culture and the criminal underworld intersect was always a challenging proposition.

Warners hated the original cut so intensely they insisted on three full re-cuts before they’d let the film creep out with their name on it at all. Rumour has it some of the sex scenes with Jagger and Pallenberg were so explicit the processing lab refused to develop the film, preferring instead to smash the reels into oblivion out of sheer moral outrage.

Cammell wrote the screenplay and knew the dimly lit world where crime and music liked to play better than most. He was inexperienced behind a camera, however, so he was paired up with cinematographer supreme Nicolas Roeg to direct the project.

The results are a fascinating mash-up of classic gangster iconography in the film’s first half and mad, hallucinogenic visions as everything goes crazy after Chas relocates to Turner’s opulent pad.

Roeg’s camerawork is, as always, fluid and rich. There’s an authenticity in Cammell’s script that comes from using real-life gangsters in the cast and there’s a thumping soundtrack that includes such gems as Jagger’s Memo From Turner and powerful performances from Buffy Sainte-Marie and The Last Poets.

Brilliant to look at and sometimes brutal to take in, Performance is perhaps the ultimate swinging London comedown movie.

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