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United Kingdom 1970
Directed by
Donald Cammell / Nicolas Roeg
101 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Performance (1970)

Synopsis: In late 60s London a gangster (James Fox) on the run from his former Mob bosses finds brief sanctuary in the basement flat of a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger).

Performance is not only the best representation of the 1960s "Swinging London" scene ever laid down on film, with its sub-cultural swagger it is also an avant-la-lettre precursor to turn-of-millennium  East End pulp crime films, like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Gangster No 1 (2001).

Content-wise it embodies the nexus between “society” and criminal elements (also very effectively depicted in Lone Scherfig’s An Education, 2009) occuring at the time as the boom era of pop music and anti-bourgeois lifestyle choices, mainly permissive sex and mind-alerting drug use, fueled the fall of Established authority. Formally it is appropriately experimental, with an elliptical narrative and a bold visual style that well suits the story of a disintegrating socially-defined identity, very much one of the era’s general preoccupations. And it stars Mick Jagger, then at the high of his star power and the incarnation of everything that the Swinging 60s were about (co-star Anita Pallenberg was then Keith Richards’ girlfriend whilst Michele Breton who plays their plaything, Lucy, never made another film).

Jagger had been critically dismissed for his lead role in Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly released earlier in the year and if his acting here no great shakes, he is the perfect choice for the androgynous rock star, Turner. Opposite him, James Fox, who had appeared in Joseph Losey’s thematically-related classic, The Servant, in 1963 brings some in solid acting chops as Chas, the East End hard-man who finds himself well out of his depth in Turner’s bent world  (apparently the shoot was so intense that Fox became a born-again Christian in his attempt to recover from it). The confrontation between Chas’s gangster world and Turner’s Bohemia is brilliantly conceived and realized  - both are nocturnal worlds hermetically separated from the “straight” world. However Chas, despite his criminality, brings with him the presuppositions of paternalistic authoritarianism, corrupted as they may be, and of course in the "heady" spirit of the times, it is the undoing of these that is the film's main concern.

Whilst Roeg supplied the talent for the film’s bold visual realization, the ideas came from scritpwrter and co-director Donald Cammell who also did most of the editing. (Financed by Warner Bros, the studio rejected the original print and it went through two more edits before being released with Roeg taking his name off the credits). The outcome is a film that unsympatheic audiences will dismiss as rambling and self-indulgent but if you know, or are interested in, the Zeitgeist of the times it is essential viewing.

FYI:  Cammell was clearly well-qualified to represent the world of artistic decadence depicted. His father Charles Richard Cammell, a Scots poet and writer who came from a wealthy ship-building family, wrote a biography of family friend, Aleister Crowley. Cammell fils was a gifted artist, society painter and member of the "Chelsea Set” of the swinging London social scene of the 1960s.

Whilst Roeg went on to make some memorable films including Walkabout, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and Don't Look Now Cammell had a far less illustrious career. He directed Demon Seed in 1977 and White Of The Eye in 1987 which explored similar themes and used the same kind of jump editing and striking visuals as Performance. Between infrequent film and TV directing jobs he directed music videos, notably for U2. However after his 1995 film, Wild Side, was cut by its producer, he committed suicide by shooting himself in 1996.




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