Permissive Review

The backstage world of rock music, particularly during the late sixties and early seventies, has been romanticized over and over again to the point where hardly anyone probably thinks about how disgusting and fetid it might be. Such a small number of people have experienced anything of the sort, with even fewer remembering it, that the imagined glamour typically overshadows the filth of that lifestyle. Even internal drama like one groupie infringing on another's turf seems a little sexier when it involves a rock star. If you factor in the threshold for becoming a groupie and also think about the various mood enhancers being passed around, maybe there's no reason at all to think this sort of atmosphere would result in anything but nightly sessions that border on being tranquilized chaos.

The 1970 British exploitation drama Permissive, directed by Lindsay Shonteff, clashes with preconceptions to depict a mood and scene less concerned with free love than the voluntary damage everyone involved does to each other. Feel good now, the film allows, but it's all at the cost of whatever happens next. The lead in the film is Suzy (Maggie Stride), a fresh-faced young woman, a kid really, who knocks on a hotel room door to meet her friend Fiona (Gay Singleton) and is thereafter whisked into a world of sex with hirsute musicians. What's amazing is that this particular goal requires more than mere enthusiasm. Not just anyone is allowed to stay close to the band - real-life prog rock group Forever More - while they're on tour. Fiona, who is possessive of lead singer Lee (Allan Gorrie), gets Suzy into the lifestyle despite the discouraging rudeness of manager Jimi (Gilbert Wynne). Fiona's helpfulness will prove regrettable and the shy Suzy initially seems to be a bad fit for this life. Things change when Pogo the hobo (Robert Daubigny), a strange cat who's befriended Suzy when no one else seems to be paying her much attention, suddenly gets hit by a car. After that, Suzy's interests markedly shift and things start to resemble a dirty All About Eve.

What's so interesting about Permissive is how it soberly disrupts any notion of this particular experience being a good thing. Nothing we see actually looks desirable or fun. The drugs are limited to some very large joints. The sex is frequent and casual but rather grimy. Nudity has rarely been less titillating. The music, often slipped in through live performances by the band but also including tracks by Comus and Titus Groan, is just there. It's perfunctory. The performers show no sense of enjoyment. It's certainly not lacking in quality but nothing screams passion or a reason for devotion. The groupies hanging around the band in the movie seem to be there not because of any adulation but instead as a result of boredom or loneliness or a desire to be accepted. Even the backstage instances of sex and drugs are completely drained of excitement. The participants are automatons programmed how to act for the occasion instead of people outwardly enjoying themselves. The only instance of inertia in the entire film is when we see the tour bus drifting down the road.

I can't be sure whether Shonteff intended any of this. His filmography, loaded with genre and exploitation pictures, doesn't command respect, but Permissive is nonetheless well-made, including the use of experimental editing techniques that resist being overly flashy, and there would seem to be too much of a focus on how unbecoming the whole groupie experience is for it to have been incidental. More than anything, the movie absolutely nails how ugly that time at least could be, and it does so with utter bleakness. The one somewhat optimistic character in the entire picture, Pogo, unleashes a charged tirade against society's ills and is swiftly smashed by a hit and run driver for his troubles. Fiona, who's comfortable with this lifestyle and knows what she wants, suffers an even harsher fate. Frequently we see the bitter mornings after a show with little commentary aside from the passed out bodies lying in its wake and the professional commitments of moving on to the next city.

Even the things that would normally seem like flaws tend to strengthen Permissive's larger themes. This is a film where any woodenness in the acting - and there's plenty of it - furthers the feeling of numbed awkwardness inherent in the lifestyle on display. Similarly, the frequent lulls and familiar moments in the plot that could seem undisciplined instead come across as reminders of how boringly repetitive sex, drugs and rock and roll can still be. Nudity verging on exploitation serves to desensitize the viewer of any teasing level of novelty. Permissive may not be a great film, but its quiet subversion of the entire idea of exploiting what it depicts is fascinating. Shonteff made a groupie picture where, after watching it, the last thing anyone would want to do was to be a groupie. Or a rock and roll star, for that matter.

The Disc

We're up to spine number 009 in the BFI's Flipside series. This dual-layered Blu-ray disc is region-free.

Permissive is in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, pillarboxed at the sides. The film is from 1970 but this is nonetheless listed on the case as being its original aspect ratio. The color image is quite darkly lit, and detail lacks significant depth and sharpness, but it doesn't look overly muddy. Grain is at a healthy level without overwhelming the image. The high definition transfer was taken from the original 35mm negative, with digital cleanup used to remove dirt and scratches and the like. The result is a pleasingly clean transfer that only has the rare instance of any print damage. There's simply no way any other company in the world would have bothered to present a title like this with such careful attention.

The English PCM mono track is a real treat for those interested in the frequent musical performances in the film. Sufficiently loud and surprisingly full for mono audio, the music has a nice kick to it. Dialogue can be less clear. Much of it sounds dubbed and slightly buried in the mix. Volume levels favor the music, and it might be a good idea to keep the controls easily accessible if you prefer to hear everything at roughly the same intensity. Optional English for the hearing impaired subtitles can be accessed for both the main feature and the extras, including Bread. They are white in color.

Speaking of Bread, this extra feature truly lives up to the term as we have an additional movie here as a supplement. As the included booklet points out, this is not the release version of this film. Bread originally ran almost 79 minutes upon its 1971 opening but future prints the same year cut the picture to 62 minutes. Director Stanley Long later re-edited the film to a cut of 67 minutes (and retitled it Festival). To get the version found here, the BFI started with the original 35mm picture negative, with a time of about 85 minutes, but found that the original sound negative was unavailable. Using that original picture negative, the BFI then combined it with the existing soundtrack from Long's Festival edit. The result is a film that runs a little over 68 minutes.

The best that I can say about Bread is that it's dumb fun. This is light entertainment that serves as a major contrast to the dourness of Permissive. A trio of male hippies and their two girls want to put on a rock festival without all of the oppressive money grabbing by establishment player types. Their trip involves things like pitching a tent on someone's front lawn, somehow being allowed to stay in that house for the week and various other kooky exploits that often involve female nudity. The narrative takes a backseat in the final quarter of the picture, where music performances from bands Juicy Lucy and Crazy Mabel dominate. Bread is also in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, in 1080p, and it looks brighter and possibly sharper than Permissive, though with more damage left in the print. Audio is balanced and clear, and the music performances don't burst through as in Permissive.

The mute outtakes (16:32) from Bread that were in the original picture negative are included. They are divided into seven chapters and include a performance from the band The Web, who don't appear at all in the version on the disc.

An original trailer (2:09) for Permissive advertises a "psychedelic explosion of sound" and actually does a decent job of selling the picture. The BFI also tacked on a short sex education film that was featured on last year's The Joy of Sex Education DVD release. "'Ave You Got a Male Assistant Please Miss?" (4:27), from 1973, is a comedic exploration of securing a condom.

The beat goes on with another of the BFI's superlative booklets. This 40-page supplement begins with an essay by I Q Hunter, running 6 pages, that's probably best read after viewing the film as it gets into spoiler territory from the start. Another piece on Permissive, written by Lee Dorrian, concerns the music in the picture but also has some solid analysis that I enjoyed reading. The band members of Comus share their thoughts across 3 pages and there's a 2-page biography of director Lindsay Shonteff. The remainder of the booklet has a 4-page write-up on Bread by Vic Pratt, an explanation about the various edits of that film that I mentioned above, and a brief overview on the life and career of director Stanley Long. Finishing things off is a 2-page piece that adds some background to the sex education short found on the disc. Stills, cast and crew lists, and technical details also pad out the booklet.

7 out of 10
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