Monday Movie: Performance, by Alexander Miller
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of Performance originally ran as a Criterion Prediction.
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 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. Roeg and 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.