Initially almost buried by the studio that bankrolled it, and subsequently reappraised to such extent that it’s now regarded as one of the most influential movies ever made, the question this new Blu-ray edition of Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s co-directorial debut raises is, does it deserve the attention it receives? The answer is … perhaps.
Although the highly-stylised depiction of sexual congress was undoubtedly the chief cause of controversy and talking point upon its release, the main focus of Performance – as its title indicates – is the issue of identity raised when principal character Chas (Fox) relocates to the seedy hippy dive of frustrated ex-rock star Turner (Jagger, making his acting debut) after going on the run from criminal lynchpin Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon). Chas has killed a potential business partner of Flowers, and Harry’s one-time favoured heavy is now his number one target. Turner’s run-down London mansion proves an alluring alternative to making a break for Barnstaple, Chas assuming the shabby bohemian chic will provide the perfect disguise. But once Chas and Turner begin to understand one another’s predicaments, the introduction of hallucinogenic substances starts to blur the differences between the two men…
Written by artist Cammell and shot by cinematographer Roeg, Performance is actually much less demanding than its reputation might suggest. Cammell’s script started life as an attempt to reproduce A Hard Day’s Night for the Rolling Stones, and while that idea might have changed almost completely by the time the script got to the screen, some of its simplicity survives in the straightforward nature of the actual plot. Where the film really comes into its own is in the schizophrenic editing of Roeg’s mischievous camerawork, although the jittery nature of the finished product might have been better served being reserved solely for the psychedelic sequences in the second half.
James Fox, cast against type, is brilliant as Chas, an indeterminate sexual presence whose buttoned-down personality unravels as quickly as his livelihood, while Mick Jagger is enigmatically appropriate as the flailing visionary who Chas imagines travelling in the other direction. If Chas’ latter journey had been given a touch more substance, the film’s “message” might have felt a little less flimsy; as it is, it’s difficult to say where Cammell and Roeg’s sympathies lie, with only the crime lord seemingly getting a happy ending. Perhaps the meaning of Performance is that roleplay can never supersede rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in.
Arriving four years after Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Performance feels like either a film whose thunder has been stolen, or one that’s trying to steal the thunder of another. But as a visceral, post-Altamont further wrench away from the Summer of Love, it’s a hard film to argue with.
Special Features: Influence and Controversy / Vintage featurette Memo from Turner / Trailer
PERFORMANCE / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: DONALD CAMMELL, NICHOLAS ROEG / SCREENPLAY: DONALD CAMMELL / STARRING: JAMES FOX, MICK JAGGER, ANITA PALLENBERG / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW