On Screen

Performance at the NFT reviewed

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Performance / We Love You at the National Film Theatre – Saturday 22nd November 2008

It was with enormous anticipation that my good lady and I bought tickets for this showing of the seminal ‘Performance’ and the rare outing of The Rolling Stones ‘We Love You’ promo. Not only would we see these hugely enjoyable pieces on the big screen, but it would also be attended by three of the actors involved, namely James Fox, Anita Pallenberg and Johnny Shannon.

If you’re unfamiliar with these gems, I envy you your first sight and hearing of them, as they are shining moments in the careers of some members of The Rolling Stones, and career highs for other participants.

I haven’t seen the ‘We Love You’ promo since a screening at the late, lamented Scala Cinema many years ago, and to my knowledge, it’s not available on any official Rolling Stones DVD or video. Anyone out there know better? Made in the heat of the moment around the time of the Rolling Stones’ drug bust, it depicts the action, Jagger on trial in Oscar Wilde getup, with Lord Alfred Douglas played by Marianne Faithfull and the judge by Keith Richards, with a wig made of rolled up newspapers bearing lurid headlines. A fur rug is presented as evidence of general naughtiness, all the while the crashing chords and careering brass of the title song roar incessantly. Jail doors clang, keys rattle, who knows what it must have been like to see it at the time? Is there anyone out there in Modland who did?

I admit to feeling a bit like a spare part about describing a film that many, many ‘Modculture’ readers will already be very familiar with, but in case you haven’t ventured into this particularly murky corner of the 1960’s, I’ll go ahead and it’ll serve as a taster, or a warning, depending on your view of the subject matter.

The refreshingly clear print of ‘Performance’ showed the film to best advantage, and as soon as the projector burst into life, we were no longer on the South Bank on a cold Saturday afternoon, but speeding down a country lane in a stately car with Chas Devlin and his female companion. Considering Warner Bros. executives financed this film on the understanding that it would be suitable to sell to the hordes of teenage Rolling Stones fans, the rather rough sex scene going on in the back of the ‘roller’ in the opening shots must have sobered the film company executives up pretty quickly.

The story concerns a cocky young gangster, Chas, played by James Fox, whose repeated insubordination leads to him clashing with his boss, Harry Flowers, played by Johnny Shannon. After a particularly violent episode which ends in the killing of one of Chas’ firm’s reluctant ‘customers’, Joey Maddocks, Chas realises he has to go on the run, to avoid being killed by his own gang. His original plan to hole up with a relative in Devon is forgotten when he overhears a conversation between a Hendrix-type musician and his presumably long-suffering mother, about a room in Notting Hill that has recently been vacated by said musician. Clocking names, dates and amounts owed, Chas turns up at the door of a decaying West London mansion, readies in hand, to pay off the debt and take the room for himself, figuring no-one would think of looking for the stylish Chas in a shabby, bohemian atmosphere like this.

It’s the contrast between the two worlds that’s a great strength in the film; the shift of place from the apparently respectable firm with their gentleman’s club-like office, their tailored suits and Chas’s tidy, vogue-ish modern flat, to the dark, unkempt, faded Edwardiana filled with assorted druggies, hippies and freaks. Stitched together roughly mid-way in the film, in lesser directorial hands than Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell, this would not have worked at all.

Chas’s previous life as enforcer to Flowers’ gang is suddenly and sharply defused by his arrival in the opium-soaked world of Turner (Mick Jagger) and his two girlfriends, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michele Breton). Chas’ appearance at the office of, say, one who had failed to pay their protection money would have frozen their bone marrow, but in Turner’s den, Chas cuts a pathetic figure, robbed of his power and awe. His fabulous suits and shirts, many slashed by his firms’ recalcitrant customer Joey Maddocks (Antony Valentine), Chas is reduced to salvaging whatever gear he has left, and a part of his personality is lost with them. Clothes as mask and/or disguise is a recurring theme in this stark, stylish film.  Mix in with dominance and submission, the blurring of male and female identity, light blue touch paper and retire. Or not, as you see fit.

The introduction of the faded, directionless former pop star Turner and his girlfriends brings many, not immediately noticeable dynamics into the film On the surface, we have a ménage a trios, which our apparently normal Chas finds himself intruding into. Far from his world of protection rackets, prostitution, shady nightclubs, corrupt boxing matches and fixed trials, he falls into a world that last saw the light of day at the start of the 20th Century, with its roomfuls of eastern furniture and carpets, incense fogged, its inhabitants languorously sprawled about in a drug haze, making love at will with whoever or whatever is available.    It’s a measure of the power of such a film, with its superb performances (that word again) and writing, which you, the viewer, find yourself in the dilemma of who, if anyone, to identify with. It surely isn’t Turner’s rag-bag of penniless potheads and ‘artists’, wasting their days until their glorious leader finds it in himself to write another hit? Can it really be Chas, though? We know he’s a violent criminal, accused of ‘enjoying’ his job too much; his fight with Maddocks, and his boss’s earlier forbidding him to interfere with Maddocks’ business, contain more than a hint that Chas has homosexual tendencies, mixed with his enjoyment of sadistic sex with women. This frighteningly heady brew serves to make the viewer feel uncomfortable with the identification he or she surely makes with one of these two worlds. To paraphrase newspapers of the time, gangsters rubbed shoulders with clergymen, and pop stars, and dolly birds.

Performance has a predictable end in store for Chas, whose attempt to flee the country through an old (treacherous) friend is foiled by his gang, and the Turner household suffer the same fate as the disobedient Chas.

As I said earlier, what made this screening extra special was the attendance of three of the film’s stars (I can only guess that Mr Jagger was too busy having enjoying a gin and tonic at the MCC member’s bar) that kindly answered the sometimes-strained questions of audience members, yours truly included. I knew how long James Fox prepared for the character of Chas, and what he did in that time, but I was determined that everyone should hear it, and he duly described the 8 weeks’ of hanging out with various real-life Chas’s at the boxing clubs and shady pubs well – known to Johnny Shannon, who enlarged on these stories to great appreciation of the crowd. Johnny’s jokey admission that he was, and is, no great actor raised many a smile, and is easily countered by viewing any TV programme or film he has ever appeared in, (Beryl’s Lot? The Sweeney?) and judging for yourself. There are plenty of successful actors who play only one character, often themselves with the volume turned up, so I would put Johnny’s words down to a natural modesty. Anita’s memories were a little less detailed, but she was nevertheless a powerful presence in the room, as well as in the film.

If you couldn’t make this special screening, you may have to content yourself with my little review, as I can’t see the appearance of three members of the cast happening again very soon. Happily, Performance is out on DVD, pretty affordably at the moment, and does get regular TV screenings, surprising in such an explicitly violent and sexually charged film. The soundtrack is well worth investigating; containing some excellent tracks by Randy Newman, and has long been available, unlike the film.


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