Warner Bros. // 1970 // 105 Minutes // Rated X
Reviewed by Judge Matthew Singer (Retired) // March 2nd, 2007
"The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness."
If Ingmar Bergman lived in Swinging London rather than Dreary Scandinavia, he probably would have ended up making Performance. It is basically a psychedelic re-imagining of the Swedish master's 1966 head-trip Persona, swapping a seaside cabin for a decrepit hippie mansion and the sublime Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson for chisel-jawed Bond-a-like James Fox and post-Let It Bleed Mick Jagger. What co-director Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg keep are the themes -- identity, isolation, illusion versus reality -- the hallucinatory tone (though here it's more drugged than dreamlike) and even some of the visual tricks (the brief moment where Fox and Jagger's faces morph together is an obvious homage to Bergman's famously freakish melding of Ullmann and Andersson). Add some schizophrenic editing, a gazillion high-brow literary references and one fucking bizarre musical number, and what you've got is an odd mash-up of a movie: an avant-garde gangster art-pop film -- on acid.
Chas Devlin (Fox, though it was originally intended to be Marlon Brando) fancies himself good at what he does. And what he does is violence. As a goon for London crime boss Harry Flowers, Devlin clearly enjoys his work, which includes terrorizing taxicab depots and shaving the heads of garage attendants. His enthusiasm alienates him from his colleagues, however, and when he ends up killing somebody he shouldn't have, he finds himself on the run from his former employers. Dumping a gallon of hair dye on his scalp and disguising himself as a juggler, Devlin shows up at the home of Turner (Jagger), a once-famous rock star now spending his days locked inside his dilapidated mansion, getting stoned, having group sex with his live-in girlfriends (Anita Pallenberg and Michele Breton) and singing blues songs. Devlin figures it the perfect place to hide out while his nephew tries to finagle him a fake passport and a flight to New York: Who would look for a roughneck gangster amongst a trio of free-lovin' bohos? Before long, however, Devlin discovers, to his shock, he may fit in with these freaks more than with the thugs who are pursuing him.
When Performance started shooting in 1968, the Sixties had not yet collapsed into disillusion. Sure, there was a war raging without end in Southeast Asia, and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated within months of each other, but the utopian dream of a generation still had some life in its veins. By the time the film was released in 1970, however, the dream was officially dead -- killed by a hail of bullets at Kent State, in the jungles of Vietnam, and in the voting booths that put Richard M. Nixon in the White House.
Culturally, though, the Sixties truly met its demise on Dec. 6, 1969, at the Altamont Speedway in San Francisco. Most know what happened there, but if you don't, Performance makes for a perfect allegory, and not just because it stars one of the principle players in that event. On that day, the Rolling Stones decided to throw a huge free concert and, in the infinite wisdom only musicians could possess, hire the Hell's Angels to serve as security. And pay them in beer. Good idea. Of course, by the time the Stones hit the stage that evening, you not only had a bunch of burly, agitated bikers standing guard, but a bunch of burly, agitated, stinking drunk bikers standing guard and swinging pool cues at any hippie who got near them. Then one fan pulled a gun, got stabbed and died, right there in the middle of a massive crowd of flower children, taking all hope for the creation of a peaceful, idealized society with him.
Cammell and Roeg, without even trying to, tell the story of the death of the Sixties in miniature. You've got Turner, played by Mick Jagger, living as a recluse in a crumbling Fortress of Solitude decorated with candles and mirrors and tapestries and Turkish rugs, creating an insulated universe where drugs and music and threesomes and Jorge Luis Borges are still the keys to transcendence. Then Devlin comes barging in, bringing with him all the violence and savagery and inhumanity of the world outside the mansion. At first, he appears to be the one having his identity, which is closely tied to his macho manhood, challenged -- in one scene, Pallenberg places a mirror on his chest, reflecting her breasts onto him; in another, he sleeps with the short-haired, flat-chested Breton and comments on how much she looks like a little boy -- but then we get that weird musical number in which Turner fantasizes about trading places with Devlin and barking orders at his subordinates. We then learn that the challenge is mutual, and it's obvious one will have to win out over the other. It's either savagery or transcendence, no middle ground.
In the end, one of them dies. And, not to give anything away, but it ain't the Sixties anymore.
Watching Performance today, in its first time ever on DVD, it is hard not to draw these kind of grand comparisons, because without that historical context, the movie is really not much more than a visually interesting experiment in hybrid filmmaking, with at least one stunningly good performance coming from Jagger in his screen debut. It's not necessarily a case of style over substance; Cammell and Roeg definitely have something to say. But Bergman said it better four years earlier, with a film that succeeds in haunting the viewer by doing far less. The accompanying retrospective featurette, as well as a bonus piece from the time of the movie's release, fail to place the film in any context outside of giving it its due as an underappreciated cult classic.
Well, the movie did allegedly cause the wife of a Warner Brothers executive throw up. And the sex scenes between Jagger, Breton and Pallenberg -- who was Keith Richards' girlfriend at the time -- are rumored to be authentic. And the soundtrack's pretty cool. So it is certainly worth a viewing -- especially if you can get a hold of some of those mushrooms Fox eats near the end.
Not guilty of being a waste of two hours, but guilty of not expanding much upon a previously filmed idea. And definitely guilty of narcotics possession.
Review content copyright © 2007 Matthew Singer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Rated X
* Influence and Controversy
* Memo From Turner
* Theatrical Trailer