Performance (1968): Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Bizarre, Mesmerizing Film, Starring James Fox and Mick Jagger

Strange yet mesmerizing, “Performance” is not an easy movie to watch. When it was theatrically released, in 1970, two years after it was made, some critics found it confusing due to its innovative, disorienting style, based on elliptical editing, fast cuts, flashbacks and flash forwards, symbolic montages, and so on.

Warner’s execs were shocked upon seeing the film, co-directed by the artist Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, then better known as editor. Sadly, Cammell committed suicide in 1996, in a mode that mimicked James Fox’s character’s execution of Mick Jagger in his film. He remained conscious for 45 minutes after the shooting; ironically, for him, murder became truly a work of art.

Roeg would establish a reputation as an innovative director with his next three films: “Walkabout (1971), “Don’t Look Now (1973), arguably his most accessible film starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), boasting a grand performance form iconic singer David Bowie.

Baffled as to how to market the picture-¬óas a Mick Jagger rock experience or as a stylish crime–gangster¬óthe studio simply dumped the film, a common procedure for “unusual” films, which are challenging to distribute. Warner tried to sue Cammell, hoping not to release the picture at all.

It took some time for the more discriminating critics, in the Village Voice and other magazines, to discover the work and its many merits. Eventually, “Performance” became a cult favorite, despite the fact that it never got its proper due with the public.

Admittedly, “Performance” lacks a conventional plot. The story revolves around Chas (James Fox), a muscleman for a London racket, run by Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon), a nasty, perverse guy. Inspired by the British gangster Jimmy Evans, Chas, always clad in a suit and tie, enjoys his work, which includes punishment of those who defy the organization. His job calls for warning a man on trial for being a party to an unethical merger, one that will implicate Harry Flowers.

When the man’s lawyer says he is not intimidated, Chas returns with his boys, Rosy (Meadows) and Dennis (Morton). Together, they gag the lawyer’s chauffeur, cut his hair, and damage the lawyer’s Rolls Royce. They then go after Joey Maddocks (Valentine), an East End resident Chas grew up with but now hates, forcing him into joining the “organization” and giving up control of his horse-betting parlor. Joey is happy to see Harry admonish Chas for not listening to him, calling him mockingly, the Lone Ranger. Harry’s men pin down Chas and whip him, but somehow he gets free and fatally shoots Joey, an events that signals his downfall as now he’s a man on the run from the gang and the police.

Chas finds shelter in the Notting Hill home of a once famous pop singer, Turner (Mick Jagger). A reclusive, Turner lives with two women in a strange m?©nage-a-trois of sexual relationships, the voluptuous Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and the slender Lucy (Michele Breton). In Jagger’s bohemian place, we witness head-trips, mind-screwing, and the merging of personalities and sexual characteristics, ideas that might have been influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, “Persona” (1966).

We observe the mesmerizing, deviant similarities between the two men. Each artist faces a major dilemma. Fox, who enjoyed his work profusely but didn’t know when and how to stop, is now doomed, and Turner, borderline mad, might have lost his demonic muse for creativity. These two seemingly divergent personalities have similar impulses and demons. Soon, Jagger’s Turner attempts to merge their personalities alchemically by feeding Fox’s Chas with potent drugs, resulting in utter confusion about his masculinity and identity. Turner trades places with Chas, despite his knowledge that Chas is in serious danger of getting killed.

Chas thus embarks on a violent trip, under the hallucinogenic drugs, an occasion for display various, mesmerizing images of his past and present, and an opportunity to show Francis Bacon’s homoerotic art work, which blurs reality and fantasy.

Though Chas is uncomfortable with losing control, he sticks to who he thinks he is by pretending to be normal even though he has been sexually crossed-dressed by Pherber, signifying a loss of masculinity. Chas and Turner look and act differently from what society perceives as normal. The last image depicts Turner being dressed by Pherber before entering Harry Flowers’ white Cadillac, with his face looking just like Turner’s. Strangely, Harry recognizes him as Chas, glad to be reacquainted with his old friend.

One of the film’s highlights is a nude dance performed by Harry Flowers’ gang, displaying overt homoerotic notes that indicate the role of homosexuals in British crime as well as art. The memorable music, which is arranged by the rocker Jack Nietzche, includes the Last Poets (The Big Apple), Randy Newman (Long Dead Train), Buffy Saint Marie (Dyed, Dead, Red), and Ry Cooder (Bottleneck guitar).

Forty years after it was made, the images of the film are fresh, its raw energy impressive, and some of its montages unique and even surreal. The film’s psychedelic flashes seem dated now, but many directors, among them Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, borrowed ideas and visuals from “Performance,” a movie which helped change the way mainstream films looked in the 1970s.

The story mixes the world of art with violence, a natural fit as shown in these kaleidoscope images. The opposite worlds of the underworld and underground, as influenced by the business of making money, which is their common ground: the Holy Grail at the end of the journey. It is a film that both gangsters and artists can sink their teeth into, even if the gangster might fail to recognize how he looks to others or to himself.

“Performance” is one of a kind film, deserving of much critical praise for its absorbing look at the subcultures of gangsters and artists as distinct worlds with their own values and sensibilities. It’s still an enigmatic film which captured with fanciful images the perversions and drug-induced fantasies of its era. Though time has taken away some of its freshness, it still is a powerful work.

Credits

Directors: Donald Cammell-Nicolas Roeg.
Screenwriter: Donald Cammell.
Cinematographer: Nicolas Roeg.
Editor: Frank Mazzola.

Cast

James Fox (Chas Devlin)
Mick Jagger (Turner)
Anita Pallenberg (Pherber)
Michele Breton (Lucy)
Johnny Shannon (Harry Flowers)
Stan Meadows (Rosebloom)
John Bindon (Moody)
Anthony Morton (Dennis)
Anthony Valentine (Joey Maddocks)
Kenneth Colley (Tony Farrell)
Allan Cuthbertson (The Lawyer)
John Sterland (The Chauffeur)
Laraine Wickens (Lorraine)

Runtime Time: 105 Minutes

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