Imagine the Warner Bros.executives reaction upon first seeing Performance. Originally commissioned as a light-hearted romp through Swinging Sixties London, a Stones version of The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night, they instead find themselves watching a much darker movie with the palpably greasy aura of a drug orgy overlaid with a pervasive stench of sulphur. Some of the sex scenes between Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg (who was involved with Jagger’s Rolling Stones bandmate Keith Richards at the time) won awards at an adult film festival at Amsterdam.With its explicit depiction of its themes of violence, sadism, drug use and bisexuality it’s no wonder one of the exec’s wife vomited during the original screening. It also is one of the great movies of merging identities; a male, psychedelic counterpart to Bergman’s Persona (see Dreams of Desire 7)
The look of the movie is mainly down to co-director Nicholas Roeg who would later go on to film Walkabout and Don’t Look Now. The screenplay and therefore much of the thematic content was down to Donald Cammell, Aleister Crowley’s godson (in actuality, I’m not been figurative). The Great Beast’s credo of Do What Thou Wilt certainly figures in Performance, as does Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. In fact the actual set of Performance seems to have presented as an actual Theatre of Cruelty with Cammell intent in playing games of mind-fuckery upon the cast. Keith Richards stalked the set, sitting in his car for hours on end trying to find out what was going on inside between his girlfriend and Jagger. The process of filming Performance and playing the lead character Chas Devlin, a vicious and sadistic ‘performer’ in a East End gang, clearly modelled upon the Kray twins organization, so traumatised James Fox that he gave up acting for over a decade to go knock on doors handing out pamphlets for a Christian organization.Both the female stars Anita Pallenberg and the androgynous Michele Breton would become heroin addicts, in Breton’s case fatally so. Cammell himself would disappear from sight, lurking on the fringes of Hollywood until his suicide in 1996 which he staged in front of his much younger wife with Performance in mind, even saying as he was waiting to die that he hadn’t seen Borges yet, referring to the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges whose work is a constant presence in the movie and whose image appears upon a speeding bullet.