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Performance

Performance(1970)

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Crying Boy

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To many fans, Performance (1970) is legendary as the dramatic feature film debut of Mick Jagger. Though released in 1970, the film--about a short-fused punk of a London gangster named Chas (James Fox) who hides out from the cops and the crooks alike in the basement flat of a reclusive rock stars' (Jagger) dilapidated mansion--was shot in 1968, at the height of Jagger's bad-boy infamy. The Rolling Stones had released "Between the Buttons," "Their Satanic Majesty's Request," and "Beggar's Banquet," and Jagger and Keith Richards had been arrested and convicted on drug charges in 1967. By the time the film was released he was the poster man-boy of rock decadence and the devil's music, dangerous and seductive, and he became a sexual icon in a way the Beatles could never be. But Jagger has less screen time and a far less central role in this drama than you might guess, given the way his presence transforms the film.

Performance opens as a crime thriller steeped in London gangster machismo. Chas, an angry, vicious young thug always on the edge of spinning out of control, is the young enforcer for mobster Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon), an old school gang leader making his play to consolidate his control over his section of London. The problem is that Chas likes his work far too much and has a tendency to overreach his orders, especially when they call for restraint. Chas is an artist of destruction. Which of course comes back to bite him. His zeal threatens Harry's new alliance and puts him in the crosshairs of the underworld and the cops alike.

Performance is the directorial debut of both cinematographer Nicolas Roeg and artist / writer Donald Cammell, who teamed up to co-direct. It's a heady brew from the opening scene, which stitches two seemingly disconnected storylines with aggressive editing that seems to rewrite the script as it weaves scenes together. The jagged, jackhammer dynamism cuts dialogue in to fragments in places, beginning a sentence in the back of a car where Chas leans on a witness and warping the meaning when it's picked up by a barrister in court defending Harry Flowers against criminal charges. Sixties cinema was no stranger to experimental editing and conceptual creativity but this is something else, dancing between narrative storytelling and thematic associations until the threads wind together at the end of the scene, and the editing continues to challenge conventions throughout the film. Cammell spent two years editing Performance, or rather reediting the film, after an unsatisfactory preview. He created the dense editing pattern, with its intricate layering of images and storylines and characters contrasting and blurring identities, while Roeg was off in Australia shooting his first solo project as a director, Walkabout, but Roeg was clearly in synch with Cammell, as Roeg's subsequent films continued to expand on those editing ideas. It gives the film a challenging, aggressive quality, slamming the two cultures-- London gangster machismo and the heady, decadent world of sex, drugs and rock and roll--together with a jagged crash. This is underworld culture and counterculture with a savage edge and these two artists spin a dense web of images and ideas and cultures in upheaval.

James Fox had made his reputation playing cultured men and portraits of dignity and breeding. Chas was something new to him and Fox is almost unrecognizable under the barking cockney accent and cocky, swaggering physicality of Chas, constantly wound up and ready to explode. It's all he can do to remain still in the company of the older, more disciplined soldiers of the Flowers mob. When he finally unleashes his pent-up fury on a trio of rivals who ambush him, he tips over into savage survival mode, going lone wolf with a ferocious focus. Every action seems to be acted on impulse, a sudden brainstorm that he pounces on with the full force of his feral drive, right down to the overheard tip on the basement room. He doesn't take no for an answer and, while his cover story is as patently false as his impromptu dye job (Chas mixes lotion and red paint and runs it through his hair, giving him a hairdo that looks like it was cast in plastic), his commitment to the fa├žade is so total that Turner can't turn him away.

The role of Turner, the androgynous, sexually unrestrained celebrity hermit, noodling with his experimental musical projects and lounging in bed with multiple partners, was perfect for Jagger. He almost didn't need to act, and in many ways he didn't. Jagger is least forceful when's he delivering dialogue (his tentativeness is surprising given his confidence as a singer), but his presence fills the film with the atmospheric musk of animal sensuality. Lounging under the covers or shuffling through the mansion in a loosely-tied robe, he's a man at home with his body, and the bodies of his live-in lovers. "The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness," says Turner as he and his lover (Anita Pallenberg) draw Chas into their little world of sex and drugs. It's not a promise of things to come, it's a description of what's already going on, and it comes to a head in the "Memo From Turner" number, the demonic Jagger solo tune with a sultry slide guitar by Ry Cooder. It's still the most wicked and dangerous Jagger that has ever been on screen. Speaking lines as Turner, the hermit of a rock star haunting a wreck of a mansion, Jagger is oddly passive, but once starts biting off lyrics and chewing them over as a song, he commands the scene and the screen.

It's amazing what Cammell got past Warner; this is perhaps the first major studio film to embrace androgyny and bi-sexuality in its main characters without judgment. And it's not just in the hideaway maze of Turner's oasis, where identities blur in the games of musical beds (on Blu-ray it's much easier to see that it's Mick and James in a post-coital cuddle before the identity shifts once again). Pay attention you'll see that mob boss Harry Flowers relaxes to gay porn while in bed. It gives this portrait of London thug machismo a homoerotic quality that is more than just a suggestion. Sex and violence aren't simply connected, they are intertwined here along with the fluid idea of identity and sexuality.

The Blu-ray debut looks brings out details not apparent on the DVD. The 2007 DVD release clipped a line that has been restored for this edition - "Here's to old England!" - and presents a different vocal performance for actor Johnny Shannon, who plays mob boss Harry Flowers. Some of the performances were rerecorded for the American release to soften the cockney accents and it's not clear which version this is. The film was released in mono and so is disc; the dense soundtrack sometimes gets muddied in the mix, but "Memo From Turner" sounds terrific. It jumps out of the mix.

Also includes the 24-minute featurette "Performance: Influence and Controversy," a very good piece on the production, release, and culture of the film, originally produced in 2007 for the DVD release. It doesn't feature any of the primary participants (no Jagger, Fox, or Roeg, and Donald Cammell died in 1996) but it does include interview with producers David Cammell and Sanford Lieberson, editor Frank Mazzolla, and co-star Anita Pallenberg. The archival "Memo From Turner" is a five-minute promotional piece from the film's original release that focuses on Jagger's contributions to the film and features almost the entire song. The supplements are not presented in HD.

by Sean Axmaker
By 1970 exploitation films about drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll were already sputtering to an end. The kids weren't buying nonsense like Psych-Out anymore, and many of the big-studio attempts to corner the market were no longer reaching wide audiences: Getting Straight, Zachariah, even Michaelangelo Antonini's Zabriskie Point: " How you get there, depends on where you're at!"

Warner Bros. must have had high hopes for Performance , the dramatic debut of Rolling Stones' superstar Mick Jagger. They screened the first cut of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's violent, symbolic art film and decided it was too incoherent to release. Performance finally appeared in 1970, after Hollywood had been shaken by the surprise counterculture hit Easy Rider. A sophisticated visual and aural knockout, the film begins as a gangster tale and morphs into an investigation of the meaning of identity, complete with references to the literary puzzle master Luis Borges.

Synopsis: London thug Chas (James Fox) terrorizes people for hoodlum Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) until Harry finds it advantageous to shift his business to one of Chas's old enemies. Barely managing to escape with his life, Chas holes up in a rented room belonging to Turner (Mick Jagger), a reclusive rock star. Chas pretends to be a juggler, a deception that fools nobody, especially not Turner's long-time girlfriend Pherber (Anita Pallenberg). Turner, Pherber and their other playmate Lucy (Michele Breton) decide to feed Chas magic mushrooms to find out what makes him tick. Chas asks for a passport photo, beginning a game of identities that eventually blurs the boundaries between Chas and Turner.

We can only guess at what Warner Bros. executives expected from a hip film project featuring Mick Jagger -- something like A Hard Day's Night, perhaps? It's no surprise that Performance was put on hold indefinitely. Even though the new rating code had changed what could be shown on a screen, content this strong wouldn't be seen until 1971's crop of explicit sex and violence: Straw Dogs, The Devils, A Clockwork Orange. Performance is uncommonly violent and erotic, but mostly by implication. It's also never crude -- I'm not sure we ever hear a curse word.

Donald Cammell's screenplay starts as a brutal gangster picture, with hoods in the South side of London using force to take over businesses ("We prefer the word merge"). James Fox's well-dressed extortionist Chas thinks nothing of intimidating a prominent lawyer, the perfectly cast Allan Cuthbertson. One extremely effective scene shows Chas ruining the lawyer's expensive Rolls-Royce by dousing it with acid. He then ties the lawyer's chauffer to the front bumper and shaves his head.

Once hidden in the drugged-out digs of Jagger's Turner, Chas is forced to play a psychedelic variation on the personality games of Joseph Losey's The Servant. Turner is a restless rock 'n' roll idol finished with performing. He does, however, carry on an endless orgy of sex and drugs with his two girlfriends. A tiny kid from the neighborhood, Turner's biggest fan, does odd jobs for them.

That rundown on Performance doesn't begin to describe what the movie's really like. The constant games between Turner and Chas go far beyond mirror images and The Secret Sharer identity exchanges; the men are like unstable molecules, ready to exchange properties with each other. The immaculately dressed Chas called himself a 'performer' when he intimidated his victims, and he masquerades as a juggler as part of his ploy to ingratiate himself with his new landlord. Bona fide performer Turner sees through Chas but seems to respect his arrogant stance. Turner's creative motivation, his Demon, has left him, and maybe Chas can bring it back.

Meanwhile, we're invited along to witness a post-Mod happening scene of the kind that only rock stars experience. Turner, his old lady Pherber and their (probably underage) visa-challenged French playmate frolic in various combinations for a good part of the film's running time. Scenes in Turner's oversized bed and giant tub are more convincing than those seen in bohemian exposés like Quiet Days in Clichy. Pherber injects herself with what she claims is Vitamin B-12. She invades Chas' bed and challenges him to investigate his feminine side -- something fairly revolutionary for a 1968 film. She also takes apart Chas' automatic pistol ... before Turner and co. similarly dismantle Chas' brain with psychedelic mushrooms.

Co-directors Cammell and Roeg perform their own cinematic magic through inventive direction, excellent staging and luminous camerawork. There are few 'trippy' camera angles; the most conventional art-film setups involve mirrors and Persona- like dissolves between Chas and Turner as they begin to morph into a composite identity. Roeg knows how to make an image beautiful without interrupting the flow of the film -- one of the sex scenes (which could very well be the real thing) benefits from a rosy look duplicating light filtered through a blanket.

Many 60s movies about drug trips are now embarrassments, even quite a bit of Roger Corman's original The Trip. When Chas trips out over the multicolored inlays of Turner's coffee table --"This is beautiful. I want to buy this" -- Performance is one hundred percent dead-on accurate.

We're told that the original script resolved with more gangster action involving a drug deal, but the film as finished dives straight into the brains of the two leading characters and really never comes up for air. James Fox is excellent as the chilling gang enforcer. In one of his few starring roles, Jagger is a sensation ... "Turner" is supposedly based on the personality of one of his fellow Stones band members. Anita Pallenberg (Barbarella) reportedly contributed to the screenplay; she has the look of a beauty slightly hardened by the drug life. Chas' gangster associates are a chilling assortment of jolly cutthroats led by Johnny Shannon's thuggish Harry Flowers, a bespectacled and gay 'business entrepreneur.'

Jagger sings a couple of songs in a natural mode, and prances about his recording studio to show Chas a bit of his performing style. The film's classic line comes when Chas watches Turner dance: "You'll be a funny geezer when you're 50." Now 64, Jagger has been a lot of things, but 'geezer' isn't one of them. The movie's many themes reach their peak in a bravura musical number, Memo from T. It's a fantastic -- dare I say it? -- music video that 80s MTV efforts never even touched. Turner assumes a new identity mixing up facets of both Chas and Harry Flowers. With his hair slicked back, Turner assumes Chas' threatening stance and belts out the lyrics while chairing a meeting of sexually subservient mobsters. It's both funny and scary.

Warners' DVD of Performance is listed with an "R" rating. The film was originally tagged with an "X" but I'm told that what is shown here is a bit longer than standard American release prints. The scratched, broken 35mm prints that once circulated were a mess -- for many of us, this disc is going to be the first opportunity to see the film in one piece. The colors are quite good, allowing us to appreciate tricks like switching to grainy 16mm to represent Pherber's 8mm bedroom movies. Jack Nitzsche's music track uses one of the first Moog synthesizers to create disturbing effects. A music cue similar to an electronic chime is used to interrupt a speech in court.

The good documentary gathers the film's producer, Ms. Pallenberg and others to delineate this film's strange path to the screen. Uncredited editor Frank Mazzola explains that everyone but Donald Cammell left the project when Warners took it over, and he spent months in the cutting room re-inventing a first cut judged overlong and unwieldy. By reorganizing some scenes and adding many new fractured montages, the film came down in length and gained both energy and form. The first shot up is an unrelated angle on a rocket-jet, to introduce a staccato montage sequence of Chas enjoying a wild sex party in the back of a moving limousine. Many splintered, fast-cut montages in other films from this period now resemble herky-jerky exhibitions of editorial masturbation. These are magnificent.

The disc also contains an original trailer and an original release featurette with some great material of Jagger and Cammell on the set, put together by promo people trying to fit Performance into a commercial mold.

For more information about Performance, visit Warner Video. To order Performance, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson