Revealed: Unseen photos from Mick Jagger's racy film debut

(CNN)Mick Jagger's most controversial and criticized performance may not have taken place on stage.

Instead, consider "Performance," the 1970 British gangster film where he made his acting debut as a gender-bending, sexually fluid former rock star with a taste for threesomes and psychedelic drugs.
Because of its gay undertones, explicit violence, depictions of drug use and graphic sex scenes, "Performance" was buried by Warner Bros. for two years before it was ever seen by the public.
    "The studio had read the script, so they should have known what they were getting into," recalls producer Sandy Lieberson. "But they really hated the film. They kept saying it was dirty."
    "Performance" was Lieberson's first foray into producing. Before that, he'd been the Rolling Stones' agent for film and TV.
    When the studio started to push back, he became one of the film's most determined champions, working with editors, directors and studio heads to make sure it eventually got its moment in the spotlight -- or at least in a few darkened cinemas.
    Mick Jagger on set for "Performance"
    When it was eventually released, "Performance" received abysmal reviews, and has since been largely relegated to a footnote in Jagger's life story. But now, 46 years later, the film is being presented to a newer, more progressive audience. Never-before-seen photos taken on set by society photographer Cecil Beaton are being exhibited by Sotheby's at their S|2 Gallery, casting it in a new light.

    Drama on camera

    "Performance" centers on London gangster Chas (James Fox), and Turner, an androgynous reclusive former rock star portrayed by Jagger.
    On the run from a rival who wants him dead, Chas shacks up with Turner and his girlfriend Pherber (Anita Pallenberg), exploring drugs, sex and gender identity against a backdrop of bohemian decadence.
    Lieberson remembers Jagger as a natural on set, respectful and eager to work.
    "It was something he was stimulated by, the idea of acting. He was always ambitious about trying to extend what he could do besides the Rolling Stones," Lieberson says. "Once he got there, he loved it. He felt comfortable."
    This ease on set contrasted greatly with the drama developing around the film. There were rumors that Jagger and Pallenberg -- Keith Richards' girlfriend at the time -- had started an affair on set, and were actually having sex on camera. (Richards took to parking outside the Mayfair home where filming took place whenever the two were together.)
    Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg on set for "Performance"
    However, the controversy wasn't enough to put off British society photographer Cecil Beaton, who leaped at Lieberson's invitation to shoot the cast on set.
    Beaton, who had shot the Stones in Marrakech a year earlier, was friendly with Jagger, who he described in his diary as "sexy, yet completely sexless. As a model he is a natural."
    (With Pallenberg he was less generous, criticizing her "dirty white face, dirty blackened eyes, dirty canary drops of hair, barbaric jewelery.")
    "It was not difficult (to convince him to shoot with Jagger), let's put it that way," Lieberson says with a laugh. "I think he found Mick a very attractive character and figure."
    With his photos, Beaton captured an aura of sensuality and elegance that -- depending on who you ask -- the film itself never managed to achieve. Sotheby's "'Performance' by Cecil Beaton" exhibition is the first time they'll be shown to the public.

    'Better late than never'

    Cecil Beaton photographs Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg on set for "Performance"
    Over the last 46 years "Performance" has attracted a cult following, to Lieberson's delight, yet he admits he sees this as something of a consolation prize.
    "In some way, cult says failure. I think all filmmakers want their films to be successful when they're released and not years later," he says.
    "It's wonderful that it has been acknowledged and written about, and has become slightly legendary. It would have been nice if it had happened at the beginning, perhaps, but better late than never!"
    "'Performance' by Cecil Beaton" is on view at S|2 Gallery in London from Nov. 25 to Dec. 23, 2016.