Inside the freak universe and exceptional performances of 'Performance,' a difficult and superb film
Are you ready for a trip inside Mick Jagger's head? This isn't a hypothetical question – it's a heavy trip, and if you're not ready for it you'd better steer clear of Performance, the new flick starring Mick Jagger and James Fox, co-directed by Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg. Jagger has no credit other than the dramatic lead, but it's hard to believe that he didn't have a lot to do with the direction of the film – especially since it all revolves around Jagger as Turner as Jagger. A question of identity ("Can't you guess my name?") is resolved, in a manner of speaking, and we all know who Jagger really is, don't we?
Performance is a stunning film, stunning in the sense of a body blow, and if Woodstock presented one sort of reality, Performance presents another sort, a dark yin to Woodstock's yang. The Maysles brothers aside, this is the Altamont movie. We have to deal with Altamont – and of course Jagger knew about Altamont even before it happened. Performance was shot nearly two years ago, long before the apocalypse at the Speedway, but it's all here in final form – future tidings neatly catalogued and even preanalysed. A line from Jagger's song: "We were eating eggs in Sammy's when the black man drew his knife." This is a weird movie, friends.
James Fox plays Charles, a bad-ass British gangster who loves his work. Charles especially loves beating people up, but he can get behind being beaten himself. He works for a quasi-legitimate bunch of mobsters who run a protection racket, and the film starts (after half a hour of scene-setting, character – establishment and general decompression) when he kills a cat he isn't supposed to kill.
On the run (from the mob as well as the cops), he takes refuge in the basement of a fabulous freak mansion, already occupied by Turner (a retired rock superstar played by Jagger) and his two female companions. The rest of the film is a slow love/death dance, liberally spiced with magic mushrooms, wherein Turner and Charles melt into one another, drift apart again, and find true love in the mountains of Persia. "Would the mountains be improved without the bandits?" asks Turner at one point. The question is left hanging in the air, like the smile of the Cheshire Cat, and you can think about it on your way home.
The film that we see is much like the visible tip of an iceberg – most of the action is below the surface, apparent only in random flashes. The camera pans around a nightclub and we notice (if we are looking sharply) a man reading a Dr. Strange comic. Jagger quotes Nietzsche: "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." On the soundtrack, at one point, we hear the beginning of a short lecture on Mississippi. None of these things are explained, they just exist, and reverberate in acid echoes between the lines. Performance is not an easy film.
At the heart of it all is the relationship between Turner and Charles, and that relationship reeks of purest evil. Purest evil. Turner has lost his demon, his "striped beast," and is not entirely sure whether he wants it back or not. Charles becomes of interest to Turner only when the rock singer discovers that Charles is not a juggler (as he had claimed) but a killer. Charles' evil, however, exists in a raw, unrefined state, and Turner must teach him to purify it before either of them can use it. Hence a witchcraft ritual, black magic, hallucinatory soul stealing, at the end of which . . . the apocalypse. Black magic is tricky stuff, and there is no free lunch; Turner pays the only price there ever was.
Jagger is exquisite. In fact, he is more than exquisite, he is downright outrageous. Nobody but Jagger could have played the part of Turner; he turns in a performance that transcends acting to verge on psychodrama.
Directors Cammell and Roeg are as much responsible as Jagger – they purposefully withhold anything that would allow us to establish a frame of reference, carefully building an involuted symbol – world that comes just close enough to the "real" one to be deeply disturbing. The slow "decompression" period of the first half-hour is essential to the working of the film – by the time Turner appears we have given up the world we walked in with, and accepted the one Cammell, Roeg and Jagger have prepared for us. The final effect isn't so much an alternative reality as it is a non-reality as valid as any other.
If you need a way into the film, the music is a perfect door. Jack Nitzsche has put together a fantastically appropriate score, drawing heavily on Delta blues, electronic music and Stones-rock. The music, like the rest of the film, runs mostly beneath the surface. Jagger sits hunched over his J-200, singing to Charles and whipping John Lee Hooker blues runs from the guitar: "Come on in my kitchen, you know it's raining outdoors." The song which opens and closes the film is taken from an old blues by King Solomon Hill, "Gone Dead Train," and Charles' theme is "Staggerlee," beautifully finger-picked in the standard key-of-D Tom Paley version.
Mixed in with the bottleneck blues, Nitzsche has included some of the most incredible electronic music I have encountered in a film since Ken Anger's Invocation of My Demon Brother (which was Moog Synthesized by Jagger). Apparently, Jagger does not play the Moog in Performance, but whoever does has really got his chops together – the hissing, whining, crashing rhythms of the electronic score seem almost too effective for comfort.
And then there is "Memo From T," the Jagger/Richards song which constitutes the final ritual in Turner's ceremony of possession. At the showing I attended, the audience burst into spontaneous applause as the song began, not because it was Jagger or anything, but just because the tension had been raised to such a point that a Stones' song was the only way to get out of it. Whew! There is no credit for Jagger's backup band, but it simply has to be the Rolling Stones – nobody else could keep up with him.
Performance is a first-film for directors Cammell and Roeg, and they emerge with flying colors. I don't know what Cammell has done before, but Roeg photographed Masque of the Red Death for Roger Corman, and Fahrenheit 451 for Francois Truffaut. He is also credited with cinematography for Performance, and his camera work is largely responsible for the hallucinatory quality of the film. The editing, too, is acid-like. One of the film's strongest points, in fact, is its tightness, its unity. Everything in it (music, acting, photography, editing) moves together in a beautifully orchestrated crescendo to peak in white light/black death.
Use Only As Directed: One of the attributes of evil is its ugliness, and on one level Performance is a very ugly film. Hallucinatory though it may be, I would not recommend seeing it while tripping.
This story is from the September 3, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone.