Directed by Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell. 1970.

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“The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness” – Turner 

By the time most of us reach adulthood, we have adopted a set of traits and characteristics that make up our personality, our style, who we consider ourselves to be, something we refer to as our identity. Most people cling to this role throughout their life whether or not it produces satisfaction. Others are able to open their eyes to other possibilities. Case in point: Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s masterful film Performance in which Chas, a rigid mob enforcer, meets Turner, a jaded rock star, only to discover that they each have personal attributes the other wants. This film was first made in 1966 / 1967 and was on the shelf for almost two full years because Warner Brothers was unsure of how the film’s innovative cinematography, excessive violence, sex scenes, and explicit drug use could be marketed. 

Ignored by audiences and scorched by critics when it first opened, Performance has since become a cult classic and has been recently restored and released on DVD. It is not a film that is always pleasant to watch, but it is an important film that has become widely appreciated for its eclectic soundtrack, its introduction of the music video, and its experimental camera work. The film stars James Fox as Chas, an enforcer for the mob who is called a “performer” and Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger as Turner, a retired rock star. Both Fox and Jagger are outstanding. Fox became so emotionally involved in his role that after the film he became a born-again Christian and did not make another movie for ten years.  

Performance was directed by Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell who also wrote the screenplay. Roeg went on to achieve success for Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, and The Man Who Fell to Earth but Cammell faded into obscurity and committed suicide in 1996. While the theme of the merging of two complementary personalities is reminiscent of Bergman’s Persona, the main influence seems to be that of Argentinean author, Jose Luis Borges who wrote numerous short stories about the nature of identity and a part of a Borges story is read by Jagger during the film. Though the story line in the film’s first part can be lifted from any conventional gangster film, it is presented in anything but a straight-forward manner. Images are shown out of sequence and different scenes take place simultaneously, leaving the viewer to decide what is past, present, or future.  

Chas works for a thug named Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) and seems to enjoy his work. In one incident, Chas and his associates Dennis (Anthony Morton) and Rosebloom (Stanley Meadows) decide that they would rather have Mr. Frazier, one of Flowers’ former business associates, take the heat for a flawed business deal rather than Flowers. To emphasize the point, Chas paints Frazier’s attorney’s Rolls Royce with acid and shaves the head of the chauffeur (John Sterland). The theme of merger asserts itself throughout. In an opening courtroom sequence, Frazier’s attorney (Allan Cuthbertson) argues that a corporate merger between a strong and weak company is a necessary ingredient for survival. The theme also appears when the business forcibly takes over a betting parlor run by Joey Maddocks. Chas who was urged to stay away because of personal ties with Maddocks shows up anyway and kills Joey after being worked over by some thugs.  

On the run from the mobsters and the police, Chas finds a perfect hiding place. Pretending to be a juggler on tour, he moves into a basement suite in Notting Hill owned by Turner (Mick Jagger) but finds more than he bargained for. Turner wears lipstick and dresses to hide the macho characteristics that lie buried in his persona and which later come to the surface. He has two women in his life: Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michele Breton). Pherber is Turner’s lover and the sex scenes in bathtubs and beds are convincing enough to suggest they are real and not simulated. Lucy is a boyish looking French girl who feels comfortable sleeping with either male or female. There is also a neighborhood girl named Lorraine (Laraine Wickens) who does odd jobs for them and calls Chas “dad”.  

Turner has not been able to perform in public because he has lost that inner spark, the creative energy to move to the next level and sees in Chas a man possessing the demon he requires. Trying to capture that quality for himself, Turner gets Chas high on psychedelic mushrooms and both men begin to see life in terms of new possibilities as Pherber challenges Chas to explore his feminine side. Chas tries to resist at first but when Chas asks for a Polaroid for a passport photo and dons a reddish wig, the blurring of identities comes full circle. 

The musical high point of the film is a number called Memo from T which may have been the first music video. Turner takes on Chas identity in the segment. Addressing some of Chas’ mob associates, Turner slicks his hair back like a hit man and suggests the kind of sexually threatening pose we have come to identify with the Stones. Filled with surreal images, MTV-style jump cuts, memory and fragments of memory that blend past and present, illusion and reality, the film takes us on a wild ride, forcing us to discard our conventional way of seeing a film. Disjointed, baffling, profound, and unforgettable, Performance is an experience not to be missed. 


Howard Schumann
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