The Acid House
The studio thought they were getting a crime caper starring Mick Jagger. What they got was Performance -- an orgy of violence, sex and psychotropic drugs. And the best British film ever made...
Story by Rebekah Wood, Neon, March 1998
In 1965 David Bailey produced a photographic collection called A Box of Pin Ups, comprising 36 portraits of the most glamorous people in Britain -- rich and famous, bohemian and criminal. It was this bizarre social mix that had come to present '60s London -- a milieu characterised by an excess of money, sexual freedom and rampant drug use. But it was only part of the psycho-social culture that director Donald Cammell transposed into Performance -- his 1970 portrait of a faded rock star and underworld hitman holed up in a decaying Notting Hill.
Cammell and co-director Nic Roeg connected London's burgeoning hippy mafia to the real thing -- the East End criminal fraternity, whose power-base had recently 'crossed the river'. Both had been making headlines in the media. The Krays had gone down for the 'Blind Beggar' shooting in March 1966, while early in 1967 Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and art dealer Robert Fraser were arrested at Richards' home Redlands, on drug charges. As a show bust -- an Establishment move against counter-culture -- Redlands failed, serving only to cast Mick and Keith as charismatic national outlaws.
It was this image Jagger sought to consolidate in Performance. As reclusive rock idol Turner he plays a man who has completely withdrawn from normal society. Only the arrival of wounded villain Chas -- played by James Fox, who, stripped of his upper-crust accent and long hair, turns in the performance of his career -- serves to break through his self-absorbed ennui. Chas is initially shocked by Turner's rampant hedonism -- "What a freak show!", he announces soon after his arrival at the labyrinthine west London house in Powis Square. "Druggies, beatniks, free love... A right piss-hole." Yet he soon becomes enmeshed in an erotic ménage à trois with Turner's sexually liberated companions -- Pherber (a luminous Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton) -- his personality merging with that of Turner. It's a breakdown that culminates in a violent attempt to murder his alter ego.
Shot in the autumn of 1968, under grey London skies, Performance deliberately undermined the day-glo transcendentalism of hippiedom, with the prevailing acceptance of a permissive society dissipated in debauchery, drug addiction and occultism. Unsurprisingly, the studio financing the film, Warner Bros, seemed paralysed as to what to do with it. What had been pitched to them as a sort of exotic crime caper starring Mick Jagger was in fact a shocking mix of sado-masochistic sex, ultra-violence and hallucinogens.
Early in 1970, Cammell and Jagger sent a telegram to Ted Ashley, then president of Warners in America. "This film is about the perverted love affair between Homo Sapiens and Lady Violence," it read. "It is necessarily horrifying, paradoxical, absurd. To make such a film means accepting that the subject is loaded with every taboo in the book."
Unsurprisingly, they got no reply and -- after it was extensively re-cut by the studio -- the film was finally released in December 1970, two years after its completion. Widely attacked by contemporary critics, Performance is now recognised as one of the most important British movies of the past 30 years. Indeed, as Alexander Walker put it at time, the film stands as "perhaps the last genuinely exotic fruit produced by the bizarre mutations of British society in this decade."
Sandy Lieberson: I had a reasonably high-powered job as an agent at Creative Management Associates. I represented Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones -- also Donald Cammell. The Performance deal was an attempt to establish CMA as agent for Warners in the packaging of film productions. Goodtimes was my production company. CMA brokered the deal between Goodtimes and Warners. Moving from agent to producer seemed natural. I learned as I went along. The first objective was to get Warners in, then reveal slowly the fact that we were all people with little or no experience. Donald came up with the idea of Nic Roeg. I was perplexed by that. At that point there were no teams of people co-directing. In the end it was a very real way for Donald to achieve telling his story.
James Fox: We all lived virtually next door to each other. Donald wrote the role of Chas with me in mind, he went for this offbeat casting: me as the villain. He saw something in me I hadn't recognised, something angry and violent. I was dissatisfied with being cast as a toffee-nosed layabout -- probably what I deserved, from my background -- but I didn't connect with English theatre. The work I connected with was American Naturalism: Steiger, Poitier, Lumet. I had immense respect for this type of drama that didn't depend on class or high culture.
Donald Cammell: Nic [Roeg] and I had been friends for years. We both read the same books, which to my mind is more important than seeing the same films. Our initial inspiration came from Borges and Vladimir Nabokov's Despair, a story which makes a kind of ecstatic exploration of a character's fatal encounter with his double or alter ego -- as in Performance. I was fascinated by the idea of murder which might also be suicide.
Mick Jagger: I didn't take the role because of my friendship with Donald. It was just easier listening to Donald talk about it at dinner -- which he did interminably. It wasn't a script out of nowhere. It was a family affair.
Donald Cammell: I happened to know one of the biggest stars in the world. Mick wasn't anyone's creature but he was very open to artistic influences. He was very much more than just a child of rock'n'roll. He also had a voracious curosity and was adept at assimilating any material you'd throw at him. Mick was affected by the same French and European influences that we were all connecting to.
Sandy Lieberson: One reason Warners were so excited about Performance was because of Mick's involvement. The Hollywood majors were setting their sights on the youth market. They saw him as a powerful contemporary personality.
Johnny Shannon: I worked in a betting shop. I also looked after a couple of boxers. Tommy Gibbons, who ran the Thomas-à-Becket on the Old Kent Road, rang me to say he'd got some film guys that wanted someone to meet up with this actor. My was simply to take Jimmy round south London to meet some of the 'chaps'. After a while, he suggested there might be a part for me. The scene where the chaffeur gets his head head shaved. I thought, being bald, that was the part he meant -- you know, give me a wig. Of course, he was talking about Harry Flowers -- even better.
Stanley Meadows: Donald and Nic took one look at me and both said, "That's the face we want."
Donald Cammell: There was some suggestion that the Krays would be hired for technical assistance -- an idea which was aborted due to their unavoidable absence.
Sandy Lieberson: The budget wasn't generous. Forty thousand pounds for an 11-week schedule was do-able. No production and distribution deal was agreed before shooting -- not so unusual. The film was made with a loan advanced by the distributor. If we'd signed contracts, I don't think the outcome would have been different.
James Fox: There was a sort of decisive moment. Donald and Nic got terribly fed up with me being me. They sort of kicked me out: "Don't come back until you're Chas."
Johnny Shannon: Jimmy started to get himself very, very fit. I made sure he worked the bag, did a bit of skipping and some sparring. Obviously he was an actor, so you couldn't bash him up. Jimmy took it dead serious. The first thing you teach is the left-hand jab. He never got sloppy and flicked it out, he did it right every time. He kept catching one bloke, who ended up smothered in his own blood. Jimmy loved that. When I first met him he used to dress very flamboyant: floppy hats, long hair, flowery scarfs, all that. I suggested to him that the 'chaps' really don't walk round like that. That was it. He wore his nice suits everywhere after that.
Mick Jagger: The idea was, I suppose, that people would take Turner as me. You want an audience to accept that, otherwise you've failed as an actor. It didn't really strike me as me. I modelled the character on people I knew, like Brian Jones, who'd very recently been around and who'd really gone off the deep end -- and Donald to some extent, though I don't think he knew.
Christoper Gibbs: People were chiefly themselves, with the exception of Mick, whose is playing a role -- a slightly kittenish role -- somewhat absurd for those that know him well.
James Fox: Mick was absolutely not playing himself. He's not a drop-out, never was.
Marianne Faithfull: What I hadn't anticipated was that Mick, by playing Brian and Keith, would be playing two people who were extremely attractive to Anita and who were in turn obsessed with her.
Sandy Lieberson: There were problems between Mick and Keith. He thought it was a terrible idea for Mick to become an actor. Plus, he was going to be working very closely with Anita. But I think Keith's main concern was Mick, not Anita. It was the first thing Mick had done without the Rolling Stones.
Christopher Gibbs: Most of the filming took place in Lowndes Square [in Knightsbridge], in the house of an old rascal called Leonard Plugg, a former Tory MP. My brief was vague. Donald just said something that's groovy and elegant: sort of Baudelaire-ish. Lots of things were chosen for the glitter of the surface or the sumptuous appearance... antique Moroccan things, ancient Persian carpets, tapestries, those enormous Japanese plates.
Sandy Lieberson: The decision to shoot everything on location wasn't just budgetary. None of us wanted to work to the clock or go into a studio. We wanted to keep ourselves to ourselves.
John Clark: I was used to films organised with the precision of a military campaign; suddenly I'm involved in this truly wild film. Drapes, cloth, pillows, carpet, everything loose, nothing held down. When you went into Lowndes Square you took one breath and you were stoned.
Nicolas Roeg: I have reservations about translating drug experiences onto film. In Performance I kept it simple. No light shows or strobes. It's hard to translate a drug experience on film without falling falling into cliche. Yet probably our best fairy tales began with hallucinogens.
Johnny Shannon: I've never had a drug in my life and I didn't understand anything about these cigarettes with the stuff in that evidently doesn't harm you. Mick was sitting on this pile of cushions, smoking, with Anita and Michèle [Breton]. He said, "Come and sit down with us, Johnny." I said, "No, Mick, I'm alright." I thought he'd be horrible, from what I'd read in the papers, but he was alright.
Mick Jagger: I didn't want to smoke real joints in the bath, because I couldn't remember my lines. But I did anyway.
Anita Pallenberg: By the completion of filming I was heavily into drugs. I thought I was being very surreptitious about it all, but Donald made me return to shoot an extra scene -- the one where I inject B12. He must have been on to me.
Christopher Gibbs: There was so much hashish being smoked and so much acid being dropped it's hard to remember the decade, let alone the film.
Donald Cammell: Performance is a very decadent movie. It isn't a moral tract. It's a poetic treatise on violence. Mick would probably be annoyed at this. But his dilemma was that he knew what he was trafficking in. He knew about power and violence. I mean, the Stones' music doensn't exactly radiate peace and love.
Marianne Faithfull: They hired real gangsters, like the late John Bindon -- who got life for beheading someone in a pub -- as actors, and a genuine mob boss as adviser. This was David Litvinoff. Part of Litz's job was to be James Fox's tutor in infamy. The only gangsters he knew were one from central casting. This alone must have seriously fucked with James's head.
James Fox: The was a ring of protection around me, Johnny Shannon was my minder. I was in on the social life of some pretty rough people. I spent hours listening to tapes of people like the Krays and the Richardsons. I met Ronnie Kray. He wasn't the direct inspiration for the film, but he was a big inspiration to David Litvinoff, who was the key inspiration to Donald. There was this sense that the Krays were the big-business-men of the time. Well they were, weren't they?
Christopher Gibbs: David Litvinoff was a mercurial, wandering Jew -- intelligent, uneducated and terribly funny. He didn't have an affair with Ronnie Kray, but he used to pick up boys with him sometimes. I remember being flagged down, in Sloane Street, aged 18 or thereabouts, by this car with Litvinoff in it and these frightfully sinister-looking people. One of them was Kray.
John Clark: I did a lot of work with Litvinoff. He was very good on details. All the things for Chas's apartment: the colours, ashtrays, phones. Litvinoff was a shadowy character. He had this massive razor slash across his face.
Christopher Gibbs: David liked gambling, which he did under the Krays' auspices -- until he couldn't pay his debts. David's version was that he found himself hanging upside down, cut from ear to ear, somewhere near [former department store] the Derry & Tom's roof garden, hearing the CND marchers coming up Kensington High Street singing 'Corinna, Corinna'.
Stanley Meadows: Actors model themselves on screen gangsters. But that wasn't the case. John Bindon certainly wasn't acting. He'd been involved in collecting protection money. In a casino in Battersea one time, someone was unwise enough to pick a fight with him. He clobbered the guy over the head with a roulette wheel. I think he went down for that. But he definitely had something on screen: this angelic smile and, of course, sheer physical presence.
Johnny Shannon: Johnny Bindon used to wag his three-piece about. He loved all that. He was one of the 'chaps'. I never met him before Performance, but we knew all the same people. He used to enjoy telling these terrible stories about himself. People would laugh, but when he was out of the room people were horrified. He frightened the actors.
Sandy Lieberson: Donald and Nic worked together in an immensely positive way. They discussed everything: script changes, casting, visual style. They were inseparable. It was Donald's concept. He wrote the screenplay, but the interpretation was a collaboration. I've never viewed it as either Donald's or Nic's film, though I think this idea became a problem between Donald and Nic over the years. In fact, Nic was always extremely generous, he always made sure people knew about Donald.
Nicolas Roeg: Often you hear of battles between director and cameraman. Donald and I had an absolute identification of interest in every scene.
Mick Jagger: When people talk to me about Performance, they say, "Nic Roeg -- great director!" True. But he wasn't the director of Performance, not in the way that you and I think of it. Certainly not in acting.
James Fox: Donald wasn't an especially temperamental beast -- no more than any good director with a point to make. He could get ugly. But then I never had the wit to say, "What's pissing you off, Donald?" He'd blow up if he wasn't getting something he wanted or if someone was resisting him, and I resisted him.
Stanley Meadows: Donald wanted me to take my clothes off -- one of his last-minute inspirations! I said no. He said, "What if Fellini asked you to do it?" I said, "You're not Fellini." Fortunately my contract stipulated I was not to display my genitals.
Johnny Shannon: I didn't want the nude bit. Imagine, round Lambeth, people saying, "Seen Johnny Shannon's fat arse up there?" Didn't want none of that.
Mick Jagger: I just did everything I was asked to.
Sandy Lieberson: In the third or fourth week of shooting, the distributors requested a screening. Instead of selected takes and rough sequences, we showed everything we'd shot. They hated it. Three-quarters of the way through filming, the distributors viewed the material again. They hated it, particularly Mick's character, who didn't even appear for 40 minutes. But since the technical production was excellent, filming continued. It was clear that the film was having a tremendous emotional effect on the people concerned with it.
James Fox: The thing of my taking on the part with a relish that some found disquieting relates to one incident. I was insisting that Johnny Shannon get paid. I stormed into Sandy's office and started slagging him off, in character. I wasn't totally in control and I'm sure I was doing things that people found deeply offensive.
Marianne Faithfull: Performance was a species of psycho-sexual lab run by Donald Cammell, and James Fox became prime experimental animal. It was as if Donald Cammell had set out to confront everyone with their worst nightmare. One of the subplots to the making of Performance is this: what would happen if you took a repressed upper-class Englishman and loaded him up with a bunch of psychotropic drugs, played mind games with him, buggered him and then put him in a film that recapitulates all this?
James Fox: I had a bad reaction to Donald's changing the end of film: the thesis that the hood becomes a hippy. Chas needed to be dismantled but, as an actor, I was projecting myself into Chas. It must have been very interesting for them to watch me wrestle with my problems, but the idea that I was the subject of some sort of experiment... It's an interpretation. I may have been a sacrificial lamb, but it's not the way I remember it. I don't feel abused.
Mick Jagger: Donald took it all a bit too seriously, but that came to be a big plus. He was attempting to get his vision across, deal with the crew, the actors, the studio, the over-runs -- collaborators and everyone else complaining. Things really took their toll of him. He had such problems with the studio. Hell, really.
Donald Cammell: One thing we hadn't anticipated was the language problem. In the gangster scenes, the south-London patois was spot on but a bit specialised even for other parts of London, let alone America. The studio people would sit at the screenings with strained expressions as though this was a Japanese movie with Czech subtitles.
Sandy Lieberson: I got a call from the lab saying there was a problem. The managing director said their solicitors felt the material was pornographic. Not only could they not process the film, they were obliged to destroy it. They cut up the print. Then they gave us back the negative -- bizarre! Word gets out. That's when things really started heating up, when Warners got wind they were making a pornographic film.
Donald Cammell: When it was completed, Warners wanted to have Performance burned.
Mick Jagger: Ironically, I wasn't really that involved with the music. I wanted to act, as you do! For the time, the music was extremely innovative. But the Moog synthesizer... A non-instrument! There was absolutely no musical concept behind the synthesizer stuff, it was pure experiment, mostly a matter of seeing if I could get the bloody thing to work.
Sandy Lieberson: In '68-'69 there was a deal of nervousness among the Hollywood majors about the dreaded 'X' rating. A test-screening was organised by Warners in a suburban cinema, in Santa Monica. The picture the audience had come to see was Midnight Cowboy. Get it? This wasn't a mainstream audience. All the Warners executives present. Within a few minutes, people started shouting to get this filth off the screen. By the end, there were a handful of audience and probably 50 Warners executives left. We were ordered to re-cut. If we didn't, Warners would. They had the legal right. The film was shortened and radically cut, so that Mick appeared much earlier. Argument raged: Nic and Donald versus Warners. Donald finally began to give ground. Nic felt he couldn't. He had Walkabout waiting, so he left the film with Donald.
Sandy Lieberson: If you look at the films that were being made around the time of Performance, some very strange choices were being made. There was a permissive feeling, a sense of euphoria. But by 1971, when the film was eventually released, the prevailing mood was radically different. The film was denounced, thought to represent real evil. We began to wonder -- had we made such a corrupt film?
Stanley Meadows: The opening night, at Warners West End, was packed. I was sitting with John Bindon. When the film ended we walked out together and people were literally cringing, as if we were real villains.
Christopher Gibbs: I'm used to British people being appalled by exactly the sort of thing Donald brought to the fore -- his version of sex and drugs and rock'n'roll, which was particularly gamey, slightly sort of rotten.
James Fox: The film touched so many nerves: what's real, death as an escape. Dreadful things have happened: David Litvinoff's death and Donald's, the drugs have played such a destructive part in the period since. People try to hang things onto the film. But that this was a particularly cursed thing? It's patronising. It's wrong.
Mick Jagger: The whole 'poisonous-aura-on-set' idea. It just sounds good, after the event. The comparison with Altamont was made. These hysterias attach to you. There was no connection. It was just dark times. The Vietnam War was still going... It pervaded our thinking.
James Fox: I was converted in December 1969. I was in absolute denial about the film and my part in it. I saw Donald a couple of years later. He delighted in shocking me, which he did, with a couple of pornographic photos of young girls. He was probably right. I was coming on quite religious to him. By the late 70's I was more sorted out. People always try to make cause-and-effect story out of my involvement in Performance: "James Fox left acting forever and became a bloomin' religious maniac." It's rubbish. My life was already heading in that direction.
Mick Jagger: One of the essentials of art is to mirror the times we live in. I think Performance, like The Servant, achieves this. I haven't done anything as dark or interesting or that holds up to such scrutiny since.
Additional material: Daily Cinema; Fragile Geometry -- The Films, Philosophy And Misadventures Of Nicolas Roeg by Joseph Lanza (Paj Publications)
Who was 2,000 light years from home filming Performance?
DONALD CAMMELL (co-director/writer)
Art-school-trained painter whose film career effectively began and ended with Performance. Sadly, his visually daring later works -- including computer impregnation chiller Demon Seed and serial killer nightmare White Of The Eye -- failed to pique the interest of safety-first Hollywood executives.
NICOLAS ROEG (co-director)
Cinematographer-turned-director who made his name shooting high-brow '60s epics like Fahrenheit 451. Later cast David Bowie as an alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth and married blonde perennial Theresa Russell.
SANDY LIEBERSON (producer)
One-time agent for the Rolling Stones who took up film production for Performance. Subsequent credits include Jabberwocky, Rita, Sue And Bob Too and Stars And Bars. Currently teaching at the National Film and Television School.
MICK JAGGER (Turner)
Sometime vocalist who engineered new career as an actor with appearances in Ned Kelly and Performance. Soon to be seen as transvestite club performer in Berlin-set WWII drama Bent.
JAMES FOX (Chas)
Blue-blood character specialising in dissolute aristocrats. Recently returned to period drama for forthcoming Tolstoy adaptation Anna Karenina.
ANITA PALLENBERG (Pherber)
Statuesque Scandinavian girlfriend of Keith Richards and occasional actress. Best known for imprisoning Jane Fonda in a birdcage during Barbarella.
MARIANNE FAITHFULL (posh chanteuse and girlfriend to Mick Jagger)
Lived in Ireland during making of Performance. Has since identified film as corrupting influence on Jagger.
JOHNNY SHANNON (Harry Flowers)
South London betting shop manager and ringside second for Henry Cooper. Later film work included cameo in The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle.
STANLEY MEADOWS (Rosebloom)
English character stalwart who appeared in The Ipcress File and Kaleidoscope. Now likely to be spotted in low-budget Euro projects like The Seventh Target.
CHRISTOPHER GIBBS (set designer)
Flamboyant antiques expert and furnisher to the wealthy. Responsible for party sequence in Blow Up.
JOHN CLARK (art director)
Scots set-builder who went on to co-ordinate designs for Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy.
Reviews -- But what was it really like?
The whole film looks composed for the eye on memories of someone's LSD trip. Its rapid-fire editing is a series of narcotic blinks.. Colours swim. Perspectives alter abruptly, treacherously... It's approriate that Monday night's premiere was in aid of a society that offers legal advice to drug offenders.
Alexander Walker, the Evening Standard, 7 January 1971
Donald Cammell, the writer and co-director, edits his film elliptically and achieves a suffocating sense of baroque paranoia, but seemingly endless cliches overcome all the subliminal imagery.
Mark Goodman, TIME, 24 August 1970
Richly original, resourceful and imaginative, a real live movie, in fact, just when we were beginning to think that maybe it wasn't possible any more from home-grown talent.
Derek Malcolm, THE GUARDIAN, 31 December 1970
For most of the film -- in which Jagger plays the part of a decadent pop star -- he looks remarkably like Brigitte Bardot. Really.
Cecil Wilson, the Daily Mail, 5 January 1971
Copyright © 1998 Neon.