Criterion Prediction #51: Performance, by Alexander Miller
Director: Nicolas Roeg, Donald Cammell
Cast: Mick Jagger, James Fox, Anita Pallenberg, Anthony Valentine, Michèle Breton, Anne Sidney
Synopsis: Hot blooded gangster Chas (Fox) has to go on the lam after killing a rival hoodlum during a retaliation scuffle gone awry. With conflicting business interests, Chas’s boss is infuriated, making him a fugitive from the law and his underworld contacts. Before fleeing the country, he finds a hideaway with a reclusive rock star named Turner (Jagger). These two contrasting figures initially clash, but the shared fascination between Chas and Turner results in a psychedelic dissolution of identity.
Critique: Performance isn’t a great movie, but an entertaining one that personifies two polarizing sides of London’s underground. You have the clean-cut James Fox as Chas, the criminal component, driven by money, power, violence. And then there’s Mick Jagger, the embodiment of the Swinging Sixties. Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell (two first-time directors) weave this into a strategically offbeat but perceptively-realized array of posh visual sorcery – not to mention the energy of Jagger’s understandably show-stealing performance, no pun intended. His presence, likely the main selling point of the film (and Jagger’s first starring role), has a mesmerizing androgynous charisma; whether he’s taking a bath, dancing with a fluorescent bulb or breaking into song, you can’t take your eyes off of him.
That’s not to take anything away from Fox, who (at the time) was a big enough draw to earn top billing over Jagger. He spent months in the South London crime syndicate, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ronnie Kray of the infamous Kray brothers in preparation for his role.
Performance is mainly remembered for the mind-boggling kaleidoscopic, cross-cutting visuals, but the first act is very engrossing as a punchy gangster film and James Fox is fiercely persuasive as the sociopathic Chas. The cultural immediacy (shot in 1968, but released in 1970) reinforces the juxtaposition of the two enigmatic leads; the ferocity of Fox against the sexually charged bohemia emitting from Jagger sustain Performance with an edge that most films from this period don’t retain.
While a movie like Easy Rider is hailed as a seminal title from the time with Hopper’s use of lysergic flourishes, and revisionist themes, Performance is largely overlooked. Now, I’m not saying Performance is the countercultural equivalent to Easy Rider, but regarding the influence and style I can’t help but make some connection to both films for deconstructing cinematic form as a function of social mores as well as genre-bending revisionism. The archetypes in Performance are broad, as characters Chas and Turner are representative of the permeating culture, they don’t “stand for” anything in the way Billy stood for “freedom” in Easy Rider.
Roeg and Cammell capture a time and place, but instead of solely relying on the presentation of the material (we remember The Trip as “that sixties drug movie” and not much else) here, the laissez-faire portrayal of sexual liberation and drug use allow us to seep into the film instead of looking at it as an artifact. Sure, Performance shows sign of age, and with most films to wear the counter-cultural pedigree it’s a heady grab bag of stylized visuals, sex, drugs, and yes, of course, rock n’ roll. After all, it stars Mick Jagger. Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell (Roeg more so than Cammell, though the latter is no slouch) impart their vivacious sensibilities but know when to let their stars shine. Roeg, having cut his teeth as David Lean’s DP, shows his chops as a director with imagination to spare. And Cammell, whose witchy, ritualistic inclinations stemmed from a life collaborating with the likes of Kenneth Anger, Alistair Crowley, and William Burroughs, his life (and death) is a story in itself.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Roeg’s coverage in The Criterion Collection is healthy, and the recurring presence of his work means that he’s more than just an early spine number fluke or a Laserdisc title that carried over in the early DVD years. Roeg’s work appears as soon as tenth in the collection with Walkabout, and more recent with Don’t Look Now, clocking in at spine number 745.
The Warner Archive Blu-ray of Performance doesn’t offer anything exemplary that stands out compared to their DVD release – same exact bonus features, and the 1080p picture looks good, but that’s the only advantage. With Walkabout, Bad Timing, The Man Who Fell From Earth (which has been OOP so long it might as well have fallen from earth), Insignificance, and Don’t Look Now, I’m not sure if Eureka is in line but I’d imagine Performance would be the more likely Roeg candidate.