The Underrated: Performance
Seeing as we have been so intellectual recently, I thought I’d kick off the first of my “difficult” Underrated reviews. Performance is a strange choice, in that it has reams and reams of critical praise, but at the same time, who apart from me has actually seen it? It’s described as seminal, a precursor to Lynch and an early and important work by Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell. Incidentally, Cammell was a seriously fucked up dude and the story goes that as he was dying he asked for someone to bring him a mirror so he could watch himself shuffle off the mortal coil. Weirdo.
I would have given my right nut to have been at the screening of Performance that Cammell and Roeg put on for Warners. The reason being, they had sold this film entirely on the presence of Mick Jagger as some kind of Rolling Stones answer to a Beatles film. Needless to say, Cammell and Roeg had other ideas, and as such turned in a nightmarish (for the censor) hybrid of cool as ice British Gangster movie (with lashings and lashings of violence) and a really twisted and torturous psychedelic effort that has an ending that would make David Lynch scratch his head. This is truly a seminal film, but to say that Warners were not chuffed is to understate the matter. In fact, they were so pissed off that they demanded reshoots from Cammell (not possible) to turn in something watchable. Cammell, clearly, had no chance of getting Jagger back on set (one of the big complaints was that Jagger doesn’t show until the half way point), so no chance of turning in anything that would make his paymasters remotely happy. Roeg, meanwhile, was off in Australia filming Walkabout. Instead, Cammell recut it with a lot of fast, intercut scenes that would become a stylistic technique endlessly copied elsewhere. Roeg himself, actually lifted the intercut sex scene for Don’t Look Now. He turned in the new version and Warners, desperate to catch in on the last of the Swinging London phase (it was 1970 by now, and they’d been at it for 2 years), passed it for release. The censor, an odious turd called John Trevelyan, shat one- particularly at the humungous amount of nudity and violence in it. Eventually, Cammell was ready to release his masterpiece on an unsuspecting world.
James Fox cast completely against type, plays Chas. Chas is a violent and homophobic East End Gangster who works for kingpin Harry Flowers. Unfortunately Chas has personal issues with Joey Maddocks, who attempts to teach Chas a lesson in humility. Chas has other plans and messily murders the crew. Needless to say, Chas is smarter than your average hoodlum so legs it- and he has to find a hide out. The place he picks is a shitty basement flat in a deeply uncool bit of Notting Hill owned by fading rock star (Mick Jagger) Turner, who lives in a twisted menage a trois with Anita Pallenberg’s Pherber and Michele Breton’s Lucy.
In the second half of the film a lot of shrooms are ingested, identity begins to collapse for the frisky foursome, Chas discovers things about himself, but more importantly Chas is discovered by Harry who is less than pleased at his earlier antics and orders a hit on him. The final act is massively confusing, but the hoods turn up at Turner’s place, Chas shoots Turner in the head, and then departs to his death with the thugs. Except the final shot of the film is of Jagger clearly looking out the window of the car as he goes to his death. This is a top class headfuck.
There are some films out there that just reek of cool. This is one of them. The first half is genuinely one of the most exciting British gangster films before The Long Good Friday. It’s fast paced, violent, there are buckets and buckets of boob and an authentic East End feel to it. The second half, on the other hand is a much deeper proposition- it questions sexuality, identity, and has some simply fantastic sequences in it- mostly when Chas is off his tits, actually. Oh, and there’s buckets and buckets of casual nudity. Furthermore, the film rips along at a right old pace, and the editing that was forced on Cammell really adds to this feel of speed. Watching Performance when intoxicated is not recommended- it doesn’t induce nausea (pay attention Bay) but it does induce mass confusion.
The writing is a touch on the pretentious side. Cammell fancied himself as a semi-new Wave director (Performance has been described as a hybrid of British and French cinema, although that is the most ridiculously pretentious garbage I’ve read in a while, and I’m not sure what that means anyway), and the film is stuffed full of literary references to “Important” authors of the time- mostly Borges. This is a bit farty, and I’ve not read them, so didn’t know that till I watched the making of documentary. However, there are also some fantastic pieces of dialogue- Chas struggling to explain that he’s not a homosexual or Turner who is now slumming it because he’s “lost his demon”. The identity themes of the film are a touch laboured towards the end, Chas is, literally, adopting a new identity so is dressed in Turner’s clothes (about as subtle as a sledgehammer that), and so it is left to Pallenberg and Breton’s slightly underwritten characters to supply an emotional core. The final scene between Chas and Lucy discussing her dreams and going to America has a touching “doomed” quality to it.
Which brings me around to the acting. Pallenberg, by her own admission (this isn’t a surprise given that she was shagging Keith Richards at the time- incidentally, he heard about the antics on set and turned up and sat outside for days on end waiting to beat Jagger up) had a massive, massive heroin problem (there is even a scene of Pherber shooting up “vitamins” in it to try to cover up her state) and it does show in her performance. Breton is clearly operating in her second language, and is a touch one dimensional and stilted. Nevertheless these are the minor characters, this is all about Fox and Jagger. Jagger is phenomenal here- no surprise really, as he’s basically playing a washed up version of, er, Mick Jagger, and the screen comes to life when he’s on. However, the real revelation is Fox, who has made a career from playing upper-crust types and this is miles outside his comfort zone. To James Fox’s credit, he spent time hanging out with real gangsters and his turn here is testament to the hard work he put in beforehand. The gangster roles here are brilliantly performed by everyone, and Fox leads the field with style.
There are two more points of note here. The first is that Performance arguably contains the first music video, as we would describe it. Jagger performs a track called “Memo From Turner”, which incidentally was meant to have the rest of the Stones in it but Keef was in a mood (fuck knows why seeing as Pallenberg was shagging Bryan Jones before him), that is the very definition of a video as they would come to be. The second point of note is the final scene- while deeply confusing (and I haven’t got a fucking clue what it’s about), it’s gripping and designed to be talked about- which is great because people have been talking about it ever since.
Overall, this is arguably a seminal film. On one hand it’s a cool-as-fuck London gangster film with enough violence and boob to keep all the kids interested, and on the other hand it’s an important film that attempts to examine some big themes. I have tried to keep this a bit vague, but I hope that it is clear that I do recommend it. Performance is a film where the story behind it is fascinating, and it manages to live up to this story in many ways.
Still, give it a whirl, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but if this is your thing then you should enjoy it greatly.
Until next time, which is the completely overlooked but seriously superb Peeping Tom,