Mick Jagger’s Birthday: The Rolling Stone’s Unsung Acting Career

Mick Jagger may be turning 80 on July 26, but really he seems ageless. 

As a rock icon, the Rolling Stone has been honored for his singing, his stage moves and his songwriting. Less celebrated, but worth noting, is his work as an actor. 

He started out with two films opening in 1970, both of them risky choices: “Ned Kelly,” in which the British star played the iconic Australian 1870s outlaw, directed by Tony Richardson; and “Performance,” which marked the directing debut of co-helmers Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg. Jagger toyed with his public persona by playing a burned-out, decadent rock star.

In October 1969, Variety ran a story about “Performance,” saying it had been on the shelf since 1968 because Warner Bros. execs thought it was “unintelligible.” But a new regime, including the well-respected John Calley, liked what they saw, with one source saying “They think it’s one of the hottest pictures they have.”

Variety finally reviewed it in August 1970 and A.D. Murphy agreed with the earlier regime, saying the film was a “substandard crime meller (melodrama),” adding it was strictly “for the psychedelic set.” He thought the performances were “flat.”

The film opened to tepid business, but has remained a cult favorite since then. Audiences liked Roeg’s elliptical, eye-catching style that he used in subsequent films. (Cammell only directed three other features.) The public also responded to Jagger, who is charismatic, with an androgynous beauty; he also performs a song, “Memo From Turner,” that is essentially an early musicvideo.

Though “Ned Kelly” was filmed later, it opened two months earlier. The Variety reviewer said, “No one who has ever seen Jagger in action playing to a live audience can question that he is a natural actor and performer with a wide range of expressions and postures at his instinctive command.” But he found Jagger “curiously static” in the film, mostly blaming director Richardson.

It was not an auspicious acting start, and Jagger’s other 1970 film had a more immediate impact: the Maysles brothers’ documentary “Gimme Shelter,” showing the Rolling Stones in concert, including work at the tragic Altamont festival, where four people died.

In May 1970, shortly before either narrative film was released, Variety did a roundup of British talent who were relatively new to film. The list included Anthony Hopkins (“strong, good-looking actor in his 30s with big potential”), Ian McKellen, Dudley Moore, Helen Mirren, Charlotte Rampling — and Jagger. Assessing his potential, Variety wrote: “His film work is not yet seen but may well surprise those who play him down as just a wacky warbler.”

Though few would ever define him as “wacky,” his personal life often made headlines: one marriage, many relationships, eight children from five women, tales of wild times. When the Beatles debuted in the 1960s, they were considered nice lads, while the Rolling Stones were bad boys and Jagger was scandalous; fans followed his private life with affectionate shock. 

But over the past 50 years, he remained selective, and has taken on just a few roles. They include playing a drag queen in the 2015 “Bent”; a jaded business exec running an escort agency in George Hickenlooper’s “The Man From Elysian Fields” (2001); and an art dealer in 2019’s “The Burnt Orange Heresy.”

He was signed for two cutting-edge projects that might have been amazing: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune” and Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo.” The former was never made, and Jagger began work on the latter, but its extensive delays meant he had to drop out and his character was eliminated.

Some singers, like Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and Will Smith, had long acting careers, but there are many others who dabbled occasionally, such as Bjork, Joan Jett and Eminem.

Jagger has always been an interesting screen presence, but hasn’t had a breakthrough acting role, like David Bowie with “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Cher with “Moonstruck” or Lady Gaga with “A Star is Born.” But there’s still time. He’s only 80.

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