Performance Review

Definitely not a masterpiece, but very far indeed from a complete failure, Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance is some of the best and the worst that the cultural ferment of the late 1960s has to offer, containing within its quite forward-looking surreality the seeds of its pretentious demise. Completed in 1968 but then put to slumber in the vaults for two years before Warner Bros. finally decided to unleash it upon the world, the film starts off as a sort of Brit gangster flick with Cahiers du Cinema aspirations before morphing into a free-form experiment in dualism and perspective.

It's not hard to see why the studio couldn't decide what to do with Performance, as it seems quite perfectly clear that not even the filmmakers knew what to do with it. Also, probably having wildly touted the feature film debut of Mick Jagger, the suits must have been none too happy at sitting through almost an hour of Cockney thugs spouting impenetrable slang in footage that has none too solid a grasp on A-B-C linearity. To make things worse (or better, depending on your point of view), when the Mick does appear, he's playing a cadaverous, moony visionary given to quoting Jorge Borges and having three-ways with the two continental Band-Aids sharing his falling-down London home. And there's not even any Rolling Stones on the soundtrack.

More so than your average interesting failure, there's quite a bit to admire in Performance, especially in its early scenes. James Fox plays Chas, a cold-blooded London mafia enforcer who seems to get a little too much of a kick out of his job, which he cheekily defines as "putting the frighteners on flash little twerps." In between bouts of raging sex with cabaret girls and getting his hands bloody on geezers who won't pay protection, Chas may be having a minor existential crisis. The film is fractured from the start, arrogantly eliding any attempt at narrative imposition, leaping all over the place and then doubling back on itself. Adding a further schizophrenic gloss, everyone is constantly looking into mirrors, watching themselves, being watched even as others are imitating and doubling them. Chas seems to enjoy the act of playing a gangster as much as anything, setting up the script's rather weak attempt to bridge its two poorly aligned halves, in other words, life is merely a "performance." You dig?

The soundtrack -- a masterful soundscape by the legendary Jack Nietzsche that features everyone from Ry Cooder to a pre-Pixar Randy Newman -- punctuates the bafflement with Moog-tweaked squeaks, bleeps and general electronic madness. That is, until Jagger, as faded rock icon Turner, appears, and then the slide guitars and gut-bucket blues come out in full force. Chas pops into Turner's decrepit house looking for a room to hide out in, as he's gone off and killed the wrong guy. Once inside, he's as well as a goner, falling prey to Turner's (supposed) evil charisma. With his pale and jagged face, plumped-out blood-red lips and flowing black locks, Turner has a look for sure, rock-star vampire. As Chas says to him, "You'll look funny when you're fifty."

The last half of the film is sheer nonsense, and less interesting nonsense than that which preceded it, full of the posturing, neo-pagan, theoretical amorality that Jagger and his crew were obsessed with at the time. As Chas falls under Turner's ludicrous spell, it resembles nothing more terrifying than an odd preamble to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which seems to have gotten much of its look and style (albeit in a more cut-rate fashion) from here. A particularly reality-busting segment near the end has Turner breaking into song ("Turner's Song," in fact, a ripe and raw Stones-sounding Jagger piece) somehow back at the lair frequented by Chas' partners in crime. It's a neatly shot number, having precious little to do with the rest of the film, but having at least provided visual and structural inspiration for what would later be known as the music video. It's a legacy, of a kind.


Facts and Figures

Run time: 105 mins

In Theaters: Friday 4th September 1970

Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures

Production compaines: Goodtimes Enterprises, Warner Bros.

Reviews 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 84%
Fresh: 26 Rotten: 5

IMDB: 7.1 / 10

Cast & Crew

Producer: David Cammell, Sanford Lieberson

Starring: as Chas, as Turner, as Pherber, Michèle Breton as Lucy (as Michele Breton), Ann Sidney as Dana, John Bindon as Moody

Also starring: