Growing up as a fan of The Rolling Stones, I had always known Mick Jagger dabbled in acting. I also knew he played a drugged-out rock star in the 1970 film Performance, but that was all I knew other than that it played to a very poor initial reception before gaining a cult audience in the following years. In the time since then, it has frequently appeared on lists as one of the best films of its period, while Jagger’s performance was rated by Film Comment as the best by a musician in a film. This sort of reappraisal is a textbook example of a film being ahead of its time.
The movie begins by following Chas (James Fox, below), a British gangster with a penchant for violence and brutal sex. A lot of time is spent painting a picture of his goings-on, working as part of a crime syndicate involved in business shakedowns. This seedy underbelly of organized crime in London would be a favored setting of Guy Ritchie in Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, with British street toughs proving to be just as menacing and violent as any of the thugs in an American gangster picture. Chas gets a chance to exact revenge on an old childhood rival, but takes things too far and finds himself on the run.
Disguising himself with slicked-down red hair (predicting David Bowie’s “Thin White Duke” look by five years), Chas rents a basement apartment at the home of Turner (Jagger), a decadent rock star with two girlfriends, one of whom, Pherber, is played by Anita Pallenberg, who was actually Keith Richards’ partner for much of the 1970’s. Turner spends his days indulging in sex and drugs, with some subtle hints that he is past his prime. Chas and Turner initially dislike one another, Chas despising Turner’s indulgences while Turner simply does not trust his latest tenant. A bit of art-that-would-eventually-imitate-life comes when Chas asks if Turner sees himself dressing and acting the same way at age 50; this line has become a self-fulfilled prophesy, with Jagger (now pushing 70) and The Rolling Stones being the butt of countless old jokes for at least twenty years.
Eventually, Chas and Turner begin to enjoy one another’s company. Chas, hoping to flee England for the United States, tries on a disguise that makes him look a great deal like his host. Strangely, although Fox does not have Jagger’s delicate, effete features, he is convincing with the light makeup and wig he dons to look like a rock star. Pherber slips Chas some psychedelic mushrooms, leading to a fantasy sequence where he visualizes Turner as his syndicate boss, forcing his other subordinates to strip while singing “Memo From Turner.” It is a stylized precursor to the music video (looking more like a music video as we know it today compared to, say, a song from A Hard Day’s Night or from The Monkees’ television show), with directors Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg showing a clear influence from Kenneth Anger, who was good friends with Jagger at the time.
With the film’s ending – which I refuse to give away – one can see the coming of thrillers by the likes of David Lynch, laced with a psychological twist. The film itself has a terrifying electronic music score, with a few thumping rock songs (including an uncharacteristically heavy track by Randy Newman) that provide a fitting backdrop to the violence onscreen, another Anger trademark, one that would manifest itself in the films of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. The film’s editing is mind-blowing for its time. Rapid cuts happen throughout, sometimes of scenes and characters we have yet to encounter at that point in the picture.
Performance was not embraced when it first came out, with almost all of the reviews at the time focusing on the violence and the sex, the latter of which was allegedly real rather than simulated. Even new school writers like Richard Schickel (who I otherwise respect as a fellow Chaplin lover) denounced it as trash. What they failed to recognize was the film’s separate components – gritty realism and cerebral anguish – would each be the sources of some of the greatest films made since then, from Scorsese’s neorealism all the way up to the works of Darren Aronofsky