“Performance”: A Symphony of Madness and Sanity

By Ingrid Marie Jensen

Performance has been called a work of art that encapsulates the mood of its time better than many of its contemporaries. The film, shot in 1968 and released in 1970, was “way ahead of its time in terms of gender and identity,” says James Fox, who co-starred with Mick Jagger. But Performance was also groundbreaking in terms of its soundtrack.

The film opens with a raucous kick of grinding, flat-out rock in the form of Randy Newman’s “Gone Dead Train,” but Newman’s throaty, lascivious rasp segues almost immediately into an eerie quiet, punctured only by gospel singer Merry Clayton’s melancholic sighs. A mere 60 seconds into the film, the soundtrack is already being used to jangle the viewer’s senses, creating an almost hallucinogenic sensation of confusion. But the experimental nature of the score is also calculated and precise; each switch between genres is character-specific and enhances the trippy sense of being immersed in a world of nebulous personas shifting too rapidly to grasp. As a white-wigged lawyer begins talking, the impotence of his words is emphasized by a series of synthesized clicks, squeaks and burbles that obscures his voice; Anita Pallenberg shuffles through a dreary English garden in a brown satin gown, picking ominous-looking red mushrooms, accompanied by the gently insistent, whining drone of strange instruments.

“…a film of shockingly graphic violence, unlimited drug use and uninhibited sex that has come to be seen as a prime cinematic illustration of the decadence of the waning decade.”

It’s a soundtrack of almost inexhaustible riches, rife with experimentation and firsts. The Last Poets’ “Wake Up, N*****s” is arguably the first rap song ever used in a film bankrolled by a major studio. Folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie contributed an eerily bewildering track (on which she plays mouth bow and Ry Cooder does a dulcimer solo) called “The Hashishin.” Merry Clayton, who worked on the Stones’ Let it Bleed (her wailing voice is what makes “Gimme Shelter” the magnum opus that it is), sings on several tracks, including “Turner’s Murder,” which closes the film. Clayton and a group of gospel singers hum like bees, then split their ambient tones apart with howls of anguish and delight intermingled at the moment of Turner’s death, mimicking his descent and ascension.

At its core, Performance is a crime drama about the shifting gender identity of Chas Devlin, an East End gangster on the lam. Chas finds sanctuary in the Notting Hill townhouse owned by a washed-up rock star called Turner (Jagger) and his two live-in lovers, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michelle Breton). The house, once costly and grand, is now a bohemian hovel, its condition mirroring Turner’s own hard fall from fame. Entering it, Chas departs one world and enters another, this one a bohemian realm in which he holds no social currency. As the film wavers between ’60s pop culture and London’s criminal underbelly — feeling around their differences and their intersections — so the soundtrack shifts from avant-garde ambient noise to the raunchy, bluesy rock and roll the Stones were famous for.

In Performance, co-director (with Nicolas Roeg) Donald Cammell sought to convey a more accurate depiction of swinging London than the image being sold via cheery and groovy Summer of Love newsreels. He wanted to uncover the sometimes sordid, often shocking reality of the rock and roll lifestyle as it appeared after hours and after fame. In doing so, he drew comparisons with the organized crime organizations of the London underworld. The result was a film of shockingly graphic violence, unlimited drug use and uninhibited sex that has come to be seen as a prime cinematic illustration of the decadence of the waning decade. (Martin Scorsese later used “Memo From Turner,” the only song on the soundtrack written by Jagger/Richards, in the soundtrack of Goodfellas.)

A revered cult classic today (it has a place on the British Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest films of all time), Performance was not well-received at the time of its release, in 1970. John Simon, in the New York Times, wrote: “…the film progresses by what I imagine a series of electro‐shocks to be like, but a shock treatment administered not by a therapist but by a misprogrammed computer…” Perhaps Simon’s review of the film was influenced by its soundtrack, which, compared with the grandiose sweeping orchestrations or mellow pop tunes that movie-going audiences had grown accustomed to, could indeed sound like a giant computer on the fritz.

Speaking of the soundtrack, Spela Celidnik, head of the London-based Isolar Records and a long-time fan of the film, muses, “I think it was of its time, but like all exceptional music, it doesn’t sound dated now. You can place it a certain time period, but it still sounds fresh today.” The score moves with an inimitable grace through even the most shockingly violent scenes, shifting effortlessly from a cacophony of avant-garde synthesizer work (underlying a scene at Turner’s desiccated bohemian manse) to a classically orchestrated piece (in a high-ranking mob figure’s chic apartment).

Arranger/composer/conductor/producer Jack Nitzsche, a close associate of Phil Spector and a part of the legendary Wrecking Crew of LA session musicians, was then collaborating with the Rolling Stones on Let It Bleed, arranging the album’s magnificent finale, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” He’d also just written a score for the film of Terry Southern’s novel Candy, but it had been rejected. (Nitzsche later went on to successfully score One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Exorcist.) When he played the rejected Candy material for Keith Richards, the guitarist asked Nitzsche to write a few tracks for the half-finished score of Performance. His contributions are marked by the querulous, wavering, alien sounds of a synthesizer prototype, supplied via his industry connections. (In 1982, Sainte-Marie and Nitzsche, who met on the set, got married.)

Cammell (who was typecast as Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, in Kenneth Anger’s film Lucifer Rising, and whose life ended when he shot himself in the head in the Hollywood Hills) had long been enthralled by the power Jagger exercised over his audiences. Jagger’s Pied Piper-like abilities as a front man correlated with Cammell’s interest in power games, which informed his problematic relationships with the cast and crew during filming. This became especially evident when he chose to cast Anita Pallenberg opposite Jagger as one of Turner’s live-in lover. Pallenberg was dating Keith Richards at the time, which became a source of tension between the Glimmer Twins. As a result, Jagger and Richards only contributed one song to the film’s soundtrack. “Memo From Turner,” features Ry Cooder on slide guitar (Neil Young’s producer, Russ Titelman, who also wrote “Gone Dead Train,” plays rhythm guitar) and has Jagger snarling out lyrics that were completely unpublishable at the time. As the song appears in the film, sung by Turner in a bizarre sequence that melts in and out of reality and dreams, it’s a prototype for the modern music video.

Spela Celidnik: “Obviously, we’ll never know what that soundtrack would have been like if Keith had been more involved, but the lack of ‘riffs,’ so to speak, which he is known for, certainly fits the vibe of the film, making it less structured, more chaotic, more fluid… It’s practically impossible for me to think of any scene of that film and not have it accompanied by the various sounds and songs used in the film… I don’t even have memories of the film without the music.”

When he was interviewed for the 1998 documentary Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance, James Fox broke his decades-long silence regarding the dark legends shrouding the on-set behavior of the film’s cast and crew: “I really don’t understand this demonizing, except that there’s, you know, some tragedy in a moral sense connected with that period and death, and the death of people like Brian Jones, and the deaths at the Mick Jagger concerts. There’s been a darkness in connection with that period… Naturally, we conclude that the people were somehow in league with the devil. I don’t think so. I think that they’re artists, concerned with what it is about us, that is fascinated by destruction, death, performance, madness? You know, it’s a human problem, it’s an artistic problem.” Perhaps it’s a problem best explored, and best solved, through music, which, for so many, is the only state of grace.

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