Performance (film)

Performance is a 1970 British crime drama film directed by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, written by Cammell and photographed by Roeg. The film stars James Fox as a violent and ambitious London gangster who, after killing an old friend, goes into hiding at the home of a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones in his second film).

Theatrical release poster
Directed byDonald Cammell
Nicolas Roeg
Produced bySanford Lieberson
Written byDonald Cammell
StarringJames Fox
Mick Jagger
Anita Pallenberg
Michèle Breton
Music byJack Nitzsche
CinematographyNicolas Roeg
Edited byAntony Gibbs
Brian Smedley-Aston
Frank Mazzola
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • 3 August 1970 (1970-08-03)
Running time
105 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

The film was produced in 1968 but not released until 1970 due to the reluctance of Warner Bros. to distribute the film owing to its sexual content and graphic violence. It received a mixed critical response initially, but since then its reputation has grown in stature; it is now regarded as one of the most influential and innovative films of the 1970s as well as in British cinema.

In 1999, Performance was voted the 48th greatest British film of all time by the British Film Institute; in 2008 Empire ranked the film 182nd on its list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.


Chas (James Fox) is a member of an East London gang led by Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon); his specialty is intimidation through violence as he collects pay-offs for Flowers. He is very good at his job and has a reputation for liking it. His sexual liaisons are casual and rough. When Flowers decides to take over a betting shop owned by Joey Maddocks (Anthony Valentine), he forbids Chas to get involved because he feels Chas' complicated personal history with Maddocks may lead to trouble. Chas is angry about this and later humiliates Maddocks, who retaliates by wrecking Chas' apartment and attacking Chas. Chas shoots him, packs a suitcase and runs from the scene.

When Flowers makes it clear that he has no intention of offering protection to Chas but instead wants him eliminated, Chas decides to head for the countryside to hide, but after overhearing a musician talk about going on tour and leaving his rented room in Notting Hill Gate, Chas goes there and pretends the musician was a friend who recommended him. He tells Pherber (Anita Pallenberg), a woman living there, that he is a fellow performer, juggler Johnny Dean. She lives there with Turner (Mick Jagger), a reclusive, eccentric former rock star who has "lost his demon", and Lucy (Michèle Breton), with whom he enjoys a non-possessive and bisexual ménage à trois. Floating in and out of the house is a child, Lorraine (Laraine Wickens).

At first, Chas is contemptuous of Turner, and Turner attempts to return the rent paid in advance, but they start influencing each other. Pherber and Turner understand his conflict and want to understand what makes him function so well within his world. To speed up the process, Pherber tricks him by feeding him a psychedelic mushroom, and Chas accuses her and Turner of poisoning him. He soon accepts it, and in his hallucinogenic state experiments with clothing and identity, including with feminine clothes. Chas opens up, and he begins a caring relationship with Lucy. Before all this, he phones Tony (a trusted friend who refers to Chas as "Uncle") to help him get out of the country.

Flowers and his henchmen use Tony to track Chas to Turner's flat. They allow him to go and collect his things upstairs. Chas tells Turner and Pherber he is leaving, then shoots Turner in the head. As he is led to his death, Chas still wears his feminine clothes and wig, but his face is identical to Turner's.




Performance initially was conceived by Donald Cammell as "The Performers" and was to be a lighthearted swinging '60s romp. At one stage, Cammell's friend Marlon Brando (with whom he later collaborated on the posthumously published novel Fan Tan) was to play the gangster role which became "Chas"[1]. At that stage, the story involved an American gangster hiding out in London. James Fox, previously cast in rather upper crust roles, eventually took the place of Brando and spent several months in South London among the criminal underworld researching his role.[2]

As the project evolved the story became significantly darker. Cammell was influenced by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (a portrait of Borges on a book cover can be seen at a crucial moment in the film), as he redrafted the script to create an intense, intellectual film dealing with an identity crisis.[3] Artaud's theories on the links between performing and madness also influenced Cammell. Cammell and co-director Nicolas Roeg (mainly responsible for the 'look' of the film) also benefited from a lack of interference from Warner Bros. studio executives, who believed they were getting a Rolling Stones equivalent of the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night (1964). Instead, Cammell and Roeg delivered a dark, experimental film which included graphic depictions of violence, sex and drug use.

It was intended that the Rolling Stones would write the soundtrack but due to the complicated nature of the various relationships on and off-screen, this never happened. It was rumoured that Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg – then in a relationship with Keith Richards – played out sexual scenes in the film 'for real'. When Richards heard the rumours, he apparently took to sitting in his car outside the house where the film was being shot. Needless to say, this didn't do much for the Jagger–Richards musical chemistry and the soundtrack came together from a number of sources.

Post-production and release

The film has gained notoriety due to the difficulties it faced in getting on screen. The film's content was a surprise to the studio. It has been reported that during a test screening, one Warner executive's wife vomited in shock.[4] Nicolas Roeg notes in Richard Lester's TV series Hollywood UK: British Cinema of the Sixties (originally broadcast on 3 October 1993 and repeated on BBC Four in 2005 and 2006) that a Warner exec said of the scene depicting Jagger in a bath with Pallenberg and Breton, "Even the bath water was dirty." The film was shelved by Ken Hyman, head of Warner Brothers, when he concluded that no amount of editing, re-looping, or rescheduling would cover up the fact that the picture ultimately made no sense.[5] The response from the studio was to deny the film a cinematic release.

Performance was released in 1970, after major re-editing (performed by the uncredited Frank Mazzola, working under the close supervision of Cammell, with a brief from Warner Bros to introduce Mick Jagger earlier in the film) and changes in Warner's administration. When the film was first released in the United States the voices of a number of the actors in key roles were dubbed because the studio had feared that Americans would find their Cockney accents difficult to understand. Different edits were shown around the world with the film gaining a following through to the late 1970s, by which time a variety of versions of varying quality could be seen in a handful of independent cinemas around London. A Warner Home video version was eventually released in 1980 but contained the dubbed US version.

A commemorative event was held at London's ICA on 18 October 1997, incorporating a talk by film theorists (including, in the audience, Colin MacCabe, who went on to write a guide to the film), a screening of the uncut UK edition and finally a question and answer session. Those in attendance included James Fox (and family), Pallenberg, set designer Christopher Gibbs and Cammell's brother, who introduced part of a video interview with Donald Cammell, shot just before his death. Mick Jagger was originally to appear but was committed to the Rolling Stones' Bridges to Babylon Tour.

In 2003, the BFI financed a new print of the film which was premiered at the recently refurbished Electric Cinema in Portobello Road in London's Notting Hill (with an incognito Anita Pallenburg in attendance.) An individual member of a group of stalwart London based fans of the movie (which included the journalist Mick Brown) worked to ensure that any eventual DVD release was not merely a straight 'VHS to DVD' transfer of the dubbed VHS version (as was often the policy of WB at the time) by making sure Warner Home Video London were fully aware of the new BFI financed print.

After a period of campaigning with Warner Brothers in Burbank, the Region 1 DVD was released on 13 February 2007 and elsewhere soon after. Although the film has undergone significant restoration, one famous line of dialogue – Jagger's "Here's to old England!" heard during the Memo from Turner sequence – has been removed. This is because at this crucial stage of the film (the music sequence) one of the stereo channels has been used on both channels. Other music and sound effects are also missing from this scene on the DVD release (some drums, the throbbing sound as Turner plugs a lead into his music generator and the shrieking sound at the climax of his fluorescent light tube dance). These sounds, the dialogue and the music are all audible on other releases of the film. The voices of Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) Moody (John Bindon) and Loraine, the young maid in Turner's mansion (Laraine Wickens), have been restored to the voices of the original actors.

Critical reputation

On its release the film received mixed reviews. Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote that it "isn't a very good movie," but the personalities of Jagger and Fox were enough to make it "the kind of all-round fun that in the movies oft is tried but rarely so well achieved."[6] Variety panned the film for "needless, boring sadism," a "dull" script, and "flat" performances.[7] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called it a "pretentious and repellent little film" that "cannot rise above the world it pretends to examine."[8] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four, writing that the first 40 minutes "crackle with excitement," but then "[t]he pace slows down considerably, the nudity tires and the growing attraction of Fox for Jagger is unprepared for."[9] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote that the film was suggestive of "Mickey Spillane trying to write like Harold Pinter" and that filmmakers Cammell and Roeg had done a "fundamentally rotten" job, regularly "upstaging the action and the actors with tricky (and often unintelligible) sound recording and 'striking' composition. Oddly enough, they may have stumbled into a cult hit."[10] Richard Schickel of Life described it as "the most disgusting, the most completely worthless film I have seen since I began reviewing."[11] Jan Dawson of The Monthly Film Bulletin called it "the kind of brilliant, baffling film about which it would be marginally more easy to write a book than a review...though visually dazzling, wittily and literately scripted, and brilliantly conceived, the film inevitably derives much of its strength from its performers, nearly all of whom achieve a near-symbiotic relationship with their roles."[12]

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Performance gradually acquired a cult following on the late night and repertory cinema circuits. By the 1990s, the film had undergone a critical reappraisal. The film has become canonised by many theorists of British cinema who have suggested it is iconic within the British gangster genre. This is primarily due to its reflection of the coexistence of the criminal world of the east end and the bohemian culture in London during the 1960s and 70s. In 1995, Performance appeared at number 30 in a Time Out magazine "all-time greats" poll of critics and directors.[13] After Cammell's death in 1996, the film's reputation grew still further. It is often cited as a classic of British cinema.

In the September–October 2009 issue of Film Comment, Mick Jagger's Turner was voted the best performance by a musician in a film.[14]

In his 15-hour documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Mark Cousins says: "Performance was not only the greatest seventies film about identity, if any movie in the whole Story of Film should be compulsory viewing for film makers, maybe this is it."[15]

It holds an 85% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 34 reviews, with a weighted average of 7.95/10. The site's consensus reads: "Performance is an exuberant and grimy ode to the sexual revolution, evoking cultural upheaval and identity crisis with rock 'n' roll verve and a beguiling turn by Mick Jagger".[16]


Several aspects of the film were novel and it foreshadowed MTV type music videos (particularly the 'Memo from Turner' sequence in which Jagger sings) and many popular films of the 1990s and 2000s.

  • The gangster aspect of Performance has been imitated by many popular directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and Jonathan Glazer.[17]
  • Performance pushed boundaries by featuring explicit sex scenes and drugs, which have been rumoured to be real instead of simulated. Although Andy Warhol's (and other underground filmmakers') films had featured such behaviour before Performance, it was unprecedented that they appeared in a studio production.
  • Big Audio Dynamite's song "E=MC²" contains extensive dialogue samples from Performance.
  • Coil's song "Further Back and Faster" on Love's Secret Domain contains dialogue samples from the film.
  • Happy Mondays' second album, Bummed, features several songs inspired by the film, including "Moving in With", "Performance" and "Mad Cyril". "Mad Cyril" is explicitly inspired by the film and contains dialogue from the film.
  • In keeping with the intellectual bent of Jagger's character, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges is quoted on numerous occasions during the film. His photograph appears in the brief montage which follows Turner's shooting.
  • Beat the Devil, the BMW promo film directed by Tony Scott and starring James Brown, Gary Oldman and Clive Owen contains at least two references to Performance. At one point Owen's character says "I know a thing or two about performing" – a quote from Chas. The Devil, played by Oldman, dances with a fluorescent tube, just as Turner does in Performance. In the earlier Tony Scott film True Romance, Gary Oldman (as Drexl) is seen swinging a lampshade back and forth in front of someone, as Turner does during the "Memo from Turner" sequence.
  • Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume III: Century, makes several references to Performance in its second issue, "Paint it Black", prominently featuring Mick Jagger's Turner character. The plot of the issue is about The Stones in the Park concert that took place after the death of Brian Jones and shows just how Turner "lost his demon."
  • The soundtrack song "Harry Flowers" was inspired by the character in the film, and was covered by William Orbit on Strange Cargo III.


The soundtrack album was released by Warner Bros. Records on 19 September 1970. The album features Mick Jagger, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, The Last Poets, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Merry Clayton.

Paperback novelization

A novelization of Donald Cammel's screenplay was published in 1970 under the by-line William Hughes (the publishing identity of Hugh Williams, a British author who seems never to have written under his own name, nor to have written anything but a diverse catalog of screenplay novelizations). It was released by Tandem Books in the UK and Award Books in the US.

Further reading

  • MacCabe, Colin (1 July 1998). Performance. BFI Film Classics. London: BFI Publishing. ISBN 0-85170-670-3. Retrieved 30 April 2012.
  • Brown, Mick (20 November 1999). Mick Brown on Performance. Bloomsbury Movie Guides. Bloomsbury USA. ISBN 1-58234-043-9.
  • Buck, Paul (10 September 2012). Performance: The Biography of a 60s Masterpiece. Omnibus Press. ISBN 1-84938-700-1.


  1. Blauvelt, Christian; Blauvelt, Christian (13 February 2019). "'Performance': Inside the Rock 'n' Roll Movie Too Shocking for the '60s". IndieWire.
  2. This is stated in the documentary accompanying the film in the UK Region 2 edition.
  3. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 28 December 2011. Retrieved 13 January 2012.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. Case Study: Performance, Students' British Board of Film Classification page
  5. Danny, Peary (1981). Cult Movies: The Classics, The Sleepers, The Weird and the Wonderful. U.S.A.: Gramercy Books. p. 257. ISBN 0-517-20185-2.
  6. Greenspun, Roger (4 August 1970). "Screen: 'Performance'". The New York Times: 21.
  7. "Performance". Variety: 20. 5 August 1970.
  8. Champlin, Charles (August 5, 1970). "Mick Jagger Stars in 'Performance'". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 1, 11.
  9. Siskel, Gene (September 20, 1970). "'Performance' Pace Fast at First, Then Lags". Chicago Tribune. Section 5, p. 2.
  10. Arnold, Gary (19 September 1970). "Pulp and Pop 'Performance'". The Washington Post: C6.
  11. Schickel, Richard (2 October 1970). "A completely worthless film". Life: 6.
  12. Dawson, Jan (February 1971). "Performance". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 38 (445): 28.
  13. "Top 100 Films (Centenary) from Time Out".
  14. "Film Comment's Trivial Top 20 (expanded to 50): Best Acting Performance by a Musical Performer", Archived 3 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine Film Society of Lincoln Center website, September/October 2009
  15. The story of film: An odyssey (2015) Available at: (Accessed: 20 March 2016)
  17. Mick Brown on Performance (1st U.S. ed.). New York: Bloomsbury Pub. 1999. ISBN 1582340439.


  • Ali Catterall and Simon Wells, Your Face Here: British Cult Movies Since The Sixties (Fourth Estate, 2001) ISBN 0-00-714554-3
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