“I’ve known a few performers in my time, but I’ll tell you this: he’s got the gift,” snarls London underworld boss Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon), referring to young, hot-headed agent Chas (James Fox). Chas’ neat appearance masks the violent nature within; he takes pleasure in spending his days shaking down businessmen who owe Flowers money. His is the first of several dual identities and contrasting ideologies that make up the complex world of Performance, Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s explosive ode to the end of the Swinging Sixties in London.
Chas makes an enemy out of his boss when he murders Joey Maddocks (Anthony Valentine), the owner of one of Flowers’ newly acquired businesses. Embarrassed that Flowers and his crew know he and Maddocks were once lovers, Chas harasses Maddocks, who in turn humiliates Chas. A gun is drawn, and an angry Chas shoots his former lover, whom he sees as a threat to his new, decidedly heterosexual life. Expecting Flowers to retaliate, Chas flees, disguising himself with a vibrant dye job and taking refuge in a bohemian hideout. His new landlord, Turner (Mick Jagger), heads a strange household of free-spirited artists and initially rejects Chas. But the killer is eventually welcomed by groupies Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michele Breton) and inducted into their world of psychedelic drugs and permissive sexuality. Soon Turner and Chas form a strange bond and discover similar qualities in each other, and the story takes a darker turn.
When Roeg and Cammell embarked on directing this audacious film, they were able to attract an unusual international cast, including Jagger, who was eager to try his hand at acting. Roeg, who also shot the picture, was responsible for much of the film’s postmodern style. He used several film stocks to help differentiate the film’s numerous emotional states and periods, which were later assembled in an often non-linear, elliptical editing style. The film’s two distinct worlds — the sharp, urbane realm of the British gangsters and the soft, multicolored psychedelics of Turner’s townhouse — are rendered carefully, and, like the identities within the narrative, they constantly clash and then finally merge.
Roeg’s impressive work has been beautifully preserved on Warner Home Video’s transfer, which marks the film’s DVD debut. This release will please long-standing Performance fans and will likely garner new ones. Roeg’s incredible color palette is vivid, with even the most concentrated primary colors well balanced and consistent. Remarkably clean of age wear, the source material appears exceptionally crisp. The monaural sound, which spotlights Jagger’s busy musical score, is well pronounced.
Among the supplements, the 25-minute featurette “Performance: Influence and Controversy” offers some interesting comments from producers Sanford Lieberson and David Cammell, editors Antony Gibbs and Frank Mazzola, actress Pallenberg, and film professor Colin MacCabe. The group paints an intriguing portrait of the late Donald Cammell, who was keen to combine the freewheeling sex-and-drug culture of London with the darker reality of crime and greed that he felt was looming on Britain’s cultural horizon. The interviewees also note that when the film was completed, Warner Bros. executives were so put off by it that they re-edited it and then shelved it for almost two years. When Performance was finally released, it met with mixed reviews but eventually attracted a cult following. Rounding out the supplements are the five-minute “Memo From Turner”; an original promotional piece for the film’s soundtrack; and the wild theatrical trailer.
Performance has endured and remains a dark rendering of an era in London that has often been sugar-coated in films. It’s a grim, often brutal, visually poetic piece that, like much of Roeg’s early work, was stylistically ahead of its time. The edgy, sometimes sinister tone of the film is perfectly summed up by Turner’s declaration that “the only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness!” This new DVD brings the film’s trippy audacity to life for a new generation of viewers.