Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
By 1970 exploitation films about drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll were already sputtering to an end. The kids weren't buying nonsense like Psych-Out anymore, and many of the big-studio attempts to corner the market were no longer reaching wide audiences: Getting Straight, Zachariah, even Michaelangelo Antonini's Zabriskie Point: " How you get there, depends on where you're at!"
Warner Bros. must have had high hopes for Performance , the dramatic debut of Rolling Stones' superstar Mick Jagger. They screened the first cut of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's violent, symbolic art film and decided it was too incoherent to release. Performance finally appeared in 1970, after Hollywood had been shaken by the surprise counterculture hit Easy Rider. A sophisticated visual and aural knockout, the film begins as a gangster tale and morphs into an investigation of the meaning of identity, complete with references to the literary puzzle master Luis Borges.
London thug Chas (James Fox) terrorizes people for hoodlum Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) until Harry finds it advantageous to shift his business to one of Chas's old enemies. Barely managing to escape with his life, Chas holes up in a rented room belonging to Turner (Mick Jagger), a reclusive rock star. Chas pretends to be a juggler, a deception that fools nobody, especially not Turner's long-time girlfriend Pherber (Anita Pallenberg). Turner, Pherber and their other playmate Lucy (Michele Breton) decide to feed Chas magic mushrooms to find out what makes him tick. Chas asks for a passport photo, beginning a game of identities that eventually blurs the boundaries between Chas and Turner.
We can only guess at what Warner Bros. executives expected from a hip film project featuring Mick Jagger -- something like A Hard Day's Night, perhaps? It's no surprise that Performance was put on hold indefinitely. Even though the new rating code had changed what could be shown on a screen, content this strong wouldn't be seen until 1971's crop of explicit sex and violence: Straw Dogs, The Devils, A Clockwork Orange. Performance is uncommonly violent and erotic, but mostly by implication. It's also never crude -- I'm not sure we ever hear a curse word.
Donald Cammell's screenplay starts as a brutal gangster picture, with hoods in the South side of London using force to take over businesses ("We prefer the word merge"). James Fox's well-dressed extortionist Chas thinks nothing of intimidating a prominent lawyer, the perfectly cast Allan Cuthbertson. One extremely effective scene shows Chas ruining the lawyer's expensive Rolls-Royce by dousing it with acid. He then ties the lawyer's chauffer to the front bumper and shaves his head.
Once hidden in the drugged-out digs of Jagger's Turner, Chas is forced to play a psychedelic variation on the personality games of Joseph Losey's The Servant. Turner is a restless rock 'n' roll idol finished with performing. He does, however, carry on an endless orgy of sex and drugs with his two girlfriends. A tiny kid from the neighborhood, Turner's biggest fan, does odd jobs for them.
That rundown on Performance doesn't begin to describe what the movie's really like. The constant games between Turner and Chas go far beyond mirror images and The Secret Sharer identity exchanges; the men are like unstable molecules, ready to exchange properties with each other. The immaculately dressed Chas called himself a 'performer' when he intimidated his victims, and he masquerades as a juggler as part of his ploy to ingratiate himself with his new landlord. Bona fide performer Turner sees through Chas but seems to respect his arrogant stance. Turner's creative motivation, his Demon, has left him, and maybe Chas can bring it back.
Meanwhile, we're invited along to witness a post-Mod happening scene of the kind that only rock stars experience. Turner, his old lady Pherber and their (probably underage) visa-challenged French playmate frolic in various combinations for a good part of the film's running time. Scenes in Turner's oversized bed and giant tub are more convincing than those seen in bohemian exposés like Quiet Days in Clichy. Pherber injects herself with what she claims is Vitamin B-12. She invades Chas' bed and challenges him to investigate his feminine side -- something fairly revolutionary for a 1968 film. She also takes apart Chas' automatic pistol ... before Turner and co. similarly dismantle Chas' brain with psychedelic mushrooms.
Co-directors Cammell and Roeg perform their own cinematic magic through inventive direction, excellent staging and luminous camerawork. There are few 'trippy' camera angles; the most conventional art-film setups involve mirrors and Persona- like dissolves between Chas and Turner as they begin to morph into a composite identity. Roeg knows how to make an image beautiful without interrupting the flow of the film -- one of the sex scenes (which could very well be the real thing) benefits from a rosy look duplicating light filtered through a blanket.
Many 60s movies about drug trips are now embarrassments, even quite a bit of Roger Corman's original The Trip. When Chas trips out over the multicolored inlays of Turner's coffee table --"This is beautiful. I want to buy this" -- Performance is one hundred percent dead-on accurate.
We're told that the original script resolved with more gangster action involving a drug deal, but the film as finished dives straight into the brains of the two leading characters and really never comes up for air. James Fox is excellent as the chilling gang enforcer. In one of his few starring roles, Jagger is a sensation ... "Turner" is supposedly based on the personality of one of his fellow Stones band members. Anita Pallenberg (Barbarella) reportedly contributed to the screenplay; she has the look of a beauty slightly hardened by the drug life. Chas' gangster associates are a chilling assortment of jolly cutthroats led by Johnny Shannon's thuggish Harry Flowers, a bespectacled and gay 'business entrepreneur.'
Jagger sings a couple of songs in a natural mode, and prances about his recording studio to show Chas a bit of his performing style. The film's classic line comes when Chas watches Turner dance: "You'll be a funny geezer when you're 50." Now 64, Jagger has been a lot of things, but 'geezer' isn't one of them. The movie's many themes reach their peak in a bravura musical number, Memo from T. It's a fantastic -- dare I say it? -- music video that 80s MTV efforts never even touched. Turner assumes a new identity mixing up facets of both Chas and Harry Flowers. With his hair slicked back, Turner assumes Chas' threatening stance and belts out the lyrics while chairing a meeting of sexually subservient mobsters. It's both funny and scary.
Warners' DVD of Performance is listed with an "R" rating. The film was originally tagged with an "X" but I'm told that what is shown here is a bit longer than standard American release prints. The scratched, broken 35mm prints that once circulated were a mess -- for many of us, this disc is going to be the first opportunity to see the film in one piece. The colors are quite good, allowing us to appreciate tricks like switching to grainy 16mm to represent Pherber's 8mm bedroom movies. Jack Nitzsche's music track uses one of the first Moog synthesizers to create disturbing effects. A music cue similar to an electronic chime is used to interrupt a speech in court.
The good documentary gathers the film's producer, Ms. Pallenberg and others to delineate this film's strange path to the screen. Uncredited editor Frank Mazzola explains that everyone but Donald Cammell left the project when Warners took it over, and he spent months in the cutting room re-inventing a first cut judged overlong and unwieldy. By reorganizing some scenes and adding many new fractured montages, the film came down in length and gained both energy and form. The first shot up is an unrelated angle on a rocket-jet, to introduce a staccato montage sequence of Chas enjoying a wild sex party in the back of a moving limousine. Many splintered, fast-cut montages in other films from this period now resemble herky-jerky exhibitions of editorial masturbation. These are magnificent.
The disc also contains an original trailer and an original release featurette with some great material of Jagger and Cammell on the set, put together by promo people trying to fit Performance into a commercial mold.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sound: Excellent original mono track
Supplements: New featurette Influence and Controversy; original featurette
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 18, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
From Robert Monell, 2.10. 07: Hi Glenn: Just got the new PERFORMANCE disc yesterday, couldn't find your review on the site. When I asked at BEST BUY if they had it [I prefer to buy retail] they impatiently told me that they wouldn't be carrying it in their stores. When I asked why, the rep somewhat angrily replied, " Wha...! Because we don't carry films like that and our customers wouldn't be interested. It's an old film... We got hundreds of new movies here, why don't you look around or go online." I guess he told me! I did finally find it with some difficulty at a head shop style CD store. It's rated R, not the X as when I saw it theatrically. Nice DVD, but this is a movie which only works on the big screen. Or worked with full impact seeing it in 1970 with an appreciative audience. No matter how big and sophisticated your home system is, I realize you cannot get the full impact. The images aren't as potent as I remembered when reduced in scale. What's most impressive is the sound design. You have to watch this with headphones. Best, Robert Monell
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson