What a Performance – Donald Cammell & Nick Roeg’s seminal 60s masterpiece.

Posted on August 4, 2010


When people think back to London in the 1960s they often think of sex, drugs and rock and roll, what we have come to know as Swinging London.

Whilst many films tried to encapsulate this era, few managed to capture this as effectively as Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance.

Performance certainly had all the elements of Swinging London at this time: Sexual freedom, experimental drug use and rock music, but it went far deeper than just being a reflection of the period.

Pallenberg, Jagger and Breton share a bath, amongst other things.

What Performance endeavoured to bring to the screen was a character study in duality, drawing heavily on Jorge Luis Borges’ writings and themes such as the labyrinth, reflections and destiny.

The original theatrical trailer for Performance.

This film really was the result of Cammell’s imagination. As an artist, Cammell had been a part of the Chelsea Set in London during the Fifties, enjoying the benefits of this exclusive group, but he soon became disenchanted with the lifestyle and grew weary of painting, seeing film as the medium that allowed the greatest degree of expression of his ideas. He moved to Paris and ensconced himself in an artist’s apartment on the Left Bank where he quickly became involved with the arts scene. French Cinema was undergoing somewhat of a Renaissance at this time with New Wave directors such as Truffaut and Godard utilising radical techniques in their film-making and it was in Paris, with immersed in this creative scene, that Cammell started to develop the story for Performance.

Donald Cammell and Anita Pallenberg.

Whilst in Paris, Cammell met Anita Pallenberg and the two became friends. He showed his treatment of Performance to her and they talked over ideas, with Pallenberg contributing to the story. Pallenberg was extremely creative and had a great deal of influence on The Rolling Stones’ style and music. Cammell’s story was really about a rockstar and a gangster, and he had written the part of the gangster with Mick Jagger in mind (the role of the gangster was originally written for Marlon Brando, a close friend of Cammell’s.) Pallenberg was dating Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, which made her perfect for the role of Pherber, the live in girlfriend of the rockstar.

Pallenberg on the set of Performance.

Cammell returned to London where he began talks with his agent, Sandford Lieberson who agreed to produce the film. Lieberson was representing Jagger and the Stones and he knew that Jagger was interested in getting into films. Lieberson quickly negotiated a deal with Warner Brothers.

Cammell himself moved into a flat in London with David Litvinoff. Litvinoff had connections with the London underworld and through him Cammell was able to gain credible insight into the criminals and gangsters of London and add credence to his screenplay.

Fox and Jagger on the 81 Powis Squre set of Performance.

Lieberson and Cammell decided to hire James Fox in the role of Chaz, the gangster. Fox, a Harrow educated upper class Englishmen from a respectable family, was hardly the most obvious choice to play Cockney gangster Chaz. However, he was a popular and well-known actor and his addition to the cast was inspired. Fox moved to South London and, using many of Litvinoff’s contacts, immersed himself in the criminal underworld, researching his role.

James Fox embraced his role as Chaz.

Nicolas Roeg was to be the co-director of the film. Roeg was already an established cinematographer but had yet to direct a film. However, neither had Cammell. Cammell needed someone with Roeg’s technical ability to film his vision. The two men discussed in depth what their roles would be in the production of Performance. Roeg would be responsible for the look and the feel of the film, the camera set-ups and the lighting. He would be the director of photography whilst Cammell directed the actors. However, Roeg’s input was more than just as the DoP. There should never be any doubt that this was an equal collaboration. It is interesting that these two very different people – Cammell, an artist with philosophical ideas, and Roeg, a brilliant technical artist – should come together on this film. After all, Performance looks at the lives of two characters, each brilliant performers in their own worlds, and how they influence each other when they are brought together.

Co-director Nicolas Roeg.

At the heart of the heart of the film is the concept of the duality of the two protagonists, Turner, the washed up rockstar and Chaz the enforcer. The two men, on the face of it very different, coming from two very different backgrounds, are, in fact both very similar. Both are “performers”, the best in their respective mediums of music and violence, both are on the edge, close to being washed up and both are able to influence one another.

Jorge Luis Borges is quoted and referenced throughout the film, and in many ways, Turner’s crumbling Notting Hill mansion in Powis Square is like one of Borges’ labyrinths. As they spend more time in the house, the two men gradually become more and more alike, and, in the closing shot of the film, when Chaz is “welcomed back” by his underworld boss, the two are virtually indistinguishable. In the final shot, it isn’t clear if it is Chaz or Turner in the car, despite Turner having been shot.

Shooting was quite a strain on the actors. Fox, after Performance, took a 15 year hiatus from making films and became a devout Christian. Pallenberg, by this time dating The Stones’ Keith Richards, and who was also in the grips of heroin addiction, is rumoured to have started an affair with Jagger on set – the sex scenes reportedly shot for real. This caused quite a rift in The Stones and placed immense strain on the relationship between Richards and Jagger.

Jagger, Pallenberg and Richards.

Roeg, Cammell and Lieberson delivered a cut of the film to Warner Brothers who, initially thinking they were getting a Stones version of A Hard Days Night, were shocked by the nudity, graphic sex, violence and drug use and refused to release it. Roeg had to go to Australia to shoot Walkabout and Cammell was left to produce an entirely different edit. It wasn’t until 1970, two years later, that the film finally got a limited release from Warner Brothers.

The “Memo From Turner” sequence that became the template for modern music videos.

Whilst the film wasn’t initially well received (some of the reviewers going as far as to say it was the worst film they had ever seen) Performance’s status has continued to steadily grow through the years and has had so much influence on modern popular culture. For instance, Roeg’s shooting of the scene “memo from Turner” is essentially the template for modern music video. Performance has been referenced in countless music videos, songs and films, and its style has been imitated by many modern directors, such as Guy Ritchie, Matthew Vaughn and Quentin Tarrentino.

The video for The Charlatans’ “Just When You’re Thinking Things Over” Clearly influenced by Performance.

Many people still credit this film as Roeg’s work, which is to do a disservice to Donald Cammell. On April 24, 1996, in an act that mirrors the ending of Performance, Cammell shot himself in the head with a handgun, putting an end to a lifelong obsession with art, insanity and death.