‘Performance’: A Cult Classic

Performance is a bizarre and brilliant piece of film history, and well worth your time if you’re a real film buff. Filmed in 1968 but released in 1970 due to studio concerns that it was too explicit (reportedly one Warner executive’s wife threw up out of shock during a test screening), Performance has as much of a story surrounding it as it does in it. But what’s great about it is that it is practically indefinable.

If ever a film could be summed up with the phrase “Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll”, then it’s this…

Here’s a personal disclaimer for you: The Rolling Stones are my favourite band, and, if you’ll allow me to put on my pretentious, Stones trivia and film trivia hats simultaneously, I also adore really, really odd and unique films. Performance may also be the closest thing I have to a favourite film. But this is an opinion piece, so with that formality out of the way- let’s get on with it.

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It’s part crime drama, part psychological drama, part acid trip, at times part music video, perhaps even part horror – one might even be able to extract a coherent feminist reading of the film. The basic plot however, can be summarized as follows- James Fox stars as Chas, a violent and alpha-male member of an East End gang who is a ‘performer’ – an expert in extortion and intimidation through violence. One thing leads to another, and Chas lets his personal history influence a significant business decision, and his criminal superiors are not happy with him. This leaves him stuck with little help and nowhere to go. He winds up at the large house of a reclusive, quasi-intellectual former rock star who has “lost his demon”. This rock star is played by none other than Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, in his acting debut.

As one of the film’s taglines put it “This film is about madness. And sanity. Fantasy. And reality. Death. And life. Vice. And versa”.

From this point onwards the film changes its tone dramatically – Performance is definitely split into two very distinct parts, and as the drama unfolds this becomes clearer and clearer, and was the perfect choice to make when considering the film as a whole. Drugs, including many hallucinogens, androgyny and explorations of gender, sexuality and identity ensue. It’s a terrific and seamless blend of genres and themes that audiences wouldn’t naturally assume would work well together, and yet here they do. Granted, it’s not much of a stretch for the front-man of The Rolling Stones to be playing a Mick Jagger-esque rock star, but Jagger’s role is obviously playing to his strengths, and as a result his performance is terrific.

But make no mistake, James Fox’s Chas is the protagonist of the film; he has the most screen time by some margin, and the story is revolved around his character’s arc, not Jagger’s Turner. Indeed this strengthens the characterisation of both, and helps to pull in the audience, who go on two very different and yet strikingly similar journeys with both. As one of the film’s taglines put it “This film is about madness. And sanity. Fantasy. And reality. Death. And life. Vice. And versa.”, and this sums up the central dichotomy of the two explored in the latter section of the film. Transcendence in Performance comes from its exploration of gender identities and roles, sexualities and superficiality in the form of appearance and personal identity. In this way, the film can be seen as remarkably ahead of its time in its representation of LGBT+ issues – we’re talking decades here – and this is to its credit.

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The other cast members are also great in their roles, largely helped by the experimental direction and excellent screenwriting. Anita Pallenberg, then the girlfriend of Keith Richards (a subject of much upset off-screen, after unconfirmed reports that her and Jagger had not only had an affair on set but insisted that some of their more explicit scenes involving taking drugs and having sex would be done ‘for real’), is anything but a sidelined female groupie and is instead pivotal to the narrative, and thus to Chas’ development as a character.

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If ever a film could be summed up with the phrase “Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll”, then it’s this. To put it bluntly, Performance is really weird. As in, a-silhouette-of-a-mountain-turning-into-a-nipple weird. Yes, that happens. At other times it evolves into a full-blown music video, showing off its excellent soundtrack headed up by Ry Cooder, Jack Nitzsche and Jagger himself, to name but three of its artists. It fits perfectly into the late 60’s psychedelic scene, whilst also carving out its own unique path cinematically. This is helped on by its progressive ideas about sexual liberation, also marrying up with its era. Nonetheless it maintains a visual grime present in many exploits of late 60s and early 70s cinema, and Turner’s house, and Turner himself help the audience to wallow in this. The set design and costumes are striking, and really help to tell the story, and these are often the focus of some of Performance’s most well-shot sequences – mirrors, reflections and art are prominent throughout, and this is not accidental by any means. All of this makes it extraordinarily rewarding to watch, and you’ll be thinking about it long after the credits have rolled…

So if you’re now planning to give Performance a go, be prepared for a film unlike any other. Bizarre, moving, funny, scary, unique and ultimately experimental in every sense of the word, both in its making and in its narrative, Performance is an infinitely interesting piece of cinematic history, and one that any aspiring film aficionado should endeavour to see.

By Oliver Rowe

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