"The only performance that makes it, that really makes it...is the one that achieves madness."
--Mick Jagger, "Performance"
According to the keep case, "In underworld terms Chas Devlin (James Fox) is a 'performer,' a gangster with a talent for violence and intimidation. Turner (Mick Jagger) is a reclusive rock superstar. When Chas and Turner meet, their worlds collide--and the impact is both exotic and explosive." So, we've got performers and performances of various kinds intermixed in a wild, psychedelic, half-mad, hallucinatory motion picture portrait of life's dualities.
The 1970 movie, co-directed by Donald Cammell ("Demon Seed," "Wild Side") and Nicolas Roeg ("Walkabout," "Don't Look Now"), was controversial at the time it was made and probably only slightly controversial today. The filmmakers completed it 1968, but Warner Bros. went so far as to shelve it for two years while they edited it for public consumption. Cammell based the story to some extent on the writing of people like William S. Burroughs and, especially, Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), whose works include, among other things, literary forgeries, reviews of imaginary books, and themes of sexual identity. "Performance" makes passing references to Borges in particular, and it is clear the filmmakers got their inspiration from him as well as from the swinging sixties in general.
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll, "Performance" has it all. If Warner Bros. hadn't insisted on the film being reedited, it probably would have gotten an X rating for its sexual situations, nudity, profanity, and violence. As it is, you'll find it rated R, although to be fair it is not at all the kind of hardcore R you'd find on current cable television. There is no doubt, however, that "Performance" influenced a good deal of today's television broadcasting, largely in the area of pop music videos. You can see the movie's experimental sound, unusual color schemes, rapid editing, intercut shots, odd camera angles, and the like on MTV any hour of the week.
Anyway, the story wastes no time, starting right out with a sex scene in the back of a Rolls Royce limousine. Is this the gangster, Chas, the strong-arm man for a London mob? It appears to be, yet maybe isn't. Or maybe it is, in Chas's dreams. It's the way the movie goes; now it is, now it isn't, an imaginative amalgam of the real and the imaginary, the proper and the obscene, the genteel and the violent. You can understand the filmmakers playing around with the film's visual and aural style.
Chas's boyish good looks and straight-arrow appearance contrast with his brutal nature. In its way, the movie seems to compare gangsterism not only to big, corporate business, much as Coppola's "Godfather" would do a few years later, but to the popular music industry. This is because when Chas goes so far as to kill somebody, putting not only him but his boss, Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon), in jeopardy, the mob decides to eliminate him, and Chas has to hide. He finds refuge renting the cellar apartment of a creepy old rambling mansion owned by a former rock star now in seclusion, the mysterious, bisexual Turner, who lives with his two bisexual girlfriends, Pherber (played by the curvaceous Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (played by the more sexually ambiguous Michele Breton), and an equally enigmatic little girl who may be Lucy's daughter.
Having a real-life rock superstar in Mick Jagger playing the hermitic Turner was a stroke of genius, but according to the documentary that accompanies the disc, Warner didn't like the idea that the character of Turner doesn't show up until well past the middle of the story. Among the edits the filmmakers made was to bring in Turner earlier in a bizarre painting scene, which only adds to the film's cryptic nature.
The film's first half is a pretty good gangster yarn, tough and taut. It's the movie's second half that goes off into Neverland. Initially, Chas finds his own uptight, middle-class conformity at odds with Turner's hippie-style, free-love existence, a wonderful paradox considering that Chas is a ruthless killer. Then, Turner introduces Chas to drugs and we get what other movies have done so many times since--the psychedelic drug-trip sequence, which through repetition and parody now seems pretentious mumbo-jumbo. But if you remember that "Performance" was among the first films to include such scenes, it isn't half so bad.
Turner wants to get into Chas's mind, into his inner psyche, and see what makes him tick. At the same time, he's trying to figure out what makes himself tick; and the audience gets to see how very much alike these two seemingly disparate men are. Just who is who at this point? The results are surprising and not a little shocking.
With music by Mick Jagger, Jack Nitzsche, Ry Cooder, Gene Parsons, Bernard Krause, Buffy Saint Marie, and others, a script by co-director Donald Cammell, and photography by co-director Nicolas Roeg, "Performance" creates a knotty yet surreal tone that never quits. The movie holds up despite, or perhaps because of, the passing years.
Although the WB video engineers preserve most of the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, they can't do a lot to improve the film's original appearance. There is more grain present than I would have expected and only average object definition, with a small degree of color bleed-through. Black levels are good, though, and hues, when the filmmakers aren't intentionally trying to make things look as dreamlike as possible, are fairly deep and natural.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack does little to hide the fact that there is little of interest going on in the aural department. The film is mostly talk, and the soundtrack makes the dialogue appear pinched, nasal, hollow, and compressed. The various English accents employed in the film would probably be hard for many American viewers to comprehend under the best of circumstances, but the inferior midrange audio only worsens the situation. In addition, the frequency extremes seem attenuated and the dynamics narrow. About the only things that sound really good are Ry Cooder's guitar solos.
The primary extra is a newly made, twenty-four-minute featurette, "Influence and Controversy," in which the filmmakers describe their movie as "poetic" while really saying very little about what it all means. Indeed, one of the filmmakers admits he didn't have a clue what they were doing. Nevertheless, it's fun listening to these people talk about their experiences making the movie, some of them seemingly in awe of their work even from this distant perspective. A second, four-minute, vintage featurette, "Memo from Turner," is not so enlightening, and one can easily skip over it. Other than that, there are thirty scene selections, but no chapter insert; a standard-screen theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; and English subtitles.
I'm not sure exactly what "Performance" was trying to say, and I'm not sure the filmmakers knew, either. The story attempts to encapsulate an era into a single short film, providing insights into London gangsterism, the pop entertainment industry, big business, the drug culture, free sex, gender bending, and some kind of connection among them all, probably biting off more than it can chew. Still, it's a fascinating film from beginning to end, and it's one that never fails to surprise the viewer along the way.
"After all this time, its mystery is part of its magic and attraction. This is rare and exciting in movies." --Nicolas Roeg, 2006