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Classics Corner: ‘Performance’

Co-directed by the late, great Nic Roeg, this ’60s headtrip is marking its fiftieth birthday with a new book

Written by
David Hughes

If any film defines London at the end of the 1960s, it has to be ‘Performance’. Shot 50 years ago, it was reluctantly released two years later by a studio furious at what its maverick filmmakers had delivered. Warner Bros. wanted ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ with Mick Jagger; what they got was a twisted, hallucinogenic, drug- and sex-fuelled fantasy with a cut-up narrative in which a gangster on the run (James Fox) and a jaded rock star (Jagger) spiral into a surreal mix of free love, fluid identity, madness and violence. Co-directors Donald Cammell and the great Nicolas Roeg, who died last month, wanted to make a film about the heady times they were living in.

‘Into that mix went the political, social and psychological mood sweeping across the world,’ explains producer Sandy Lieberson, ‘and in particular for us in London.’

Fifty years on, the Notting Hill slum where it was filmed now has mansions worth millions, but ‘Performance’ retains its power to shock. Its clothes, music and attitudes are a pure distillation of the spirit of ’68 – the year of the Paris riots, Vietnam War protests, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Seismic changes were also brought about by LSD, the Pill and the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexuality – but thanks to its experimental shooting, sound and editing styles it still feels revolutionary, and as hard to pin down as ever.

That hasn’t stopped author Jay Glennie and producer Lieberson – who, before Kubrick came aboard, tried to adapt ‘A Clockwork Orange’ with The Rolling Stones as Alex and his Droogs – from compiling a lavish fiftieth-anniversary book, bursting with archive photographs and behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the making of what one esteemed writer has called ‘the best British film ever made’. Sorry, ‘Gandhi’.

‘Performance’ by Jay Glennie is out now

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