Talkin’ Oldies: Performance
When anyone discusses the ‘Gangster movie’ certain candidates come to mind: Scarface (1932), The Godfather (1972), and Goodfellas (1990). When anyone discusses films featuring musicians A Hard Day’s Night (1964), This Is Spinal Tap (1984) & 8 Mile (2002) are among the favourites and even when movies about the swinging sixties rears its head it’s usually Repulsion (1965), Alfie (1966), or even Austin Powers (1997) that receive recognition.
However, one entrant which could easily be deemed a classic of any of these genres mentioned above is Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg’s Performance – released during 1970. As a gangster film, musical portrayal, or a cultural representation, Performance excels as a hardened crime thriller, a slice of sixties psychedelic rock and a more than realistic portrayal of British counter-culture. It’s probably due to this fact alone that it is hardly mentioned in one solitary category because it deals with all three so well.
It basically follows the story of East-End gangster Chas (James Fox), a slightly unhinged though respected individual who decides to give up his life of crime and go on the run after killing the wrong man. Eagerly perused by his former employers, he decides to lie low for a while in a house inhabited by reclusive fading rock star Turner (Mick Jagger), and his two female housemates. But after changing his appearance and lifestyle, and coupled with Turner’s unusual behaviour, Chas begins to change as well. A pretty straightforward plot, right? Well no, not exactly. What develops is what could be best described as a drug-fuelled, hallucinogenic sex romp played out against swinging sixties London and by the end of the film, everything we’ve seen on screen is not necessarily how it is. Confused? Well most people were and still are.
It’s one of Performance’s many qualities; not really knowing who’s who or what’s what, that makes the film such compelling viewing. Is Chas Turner, or is Turner Chas? It certainly put film executives and the censors off when it was due to be released in 1967. ‘‘What the hell is this?’’ was often the cry coming from the industry’s bigwigs. It was violent, sexually explicit and seemingly made no sense at all. This inevitably put the film back two or three years but on its eventual release this had only added to its ‘underground’ reputation – which is continuing to grow with each decade.
A year after its release Performance was somewhat overshadowed by another British classic in the shape of Get Carter (1971). Michael Caine’s iconic turn as Jack Carter became the symbol for the hardened British gangster on screen. This was later followed up by Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday (1980) and then Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast (2000). All three are exceptional portrayals in their own right but James Fox’s Chas is equally brilliant but never mentioned. It was rumoured that Fox took a break from acting due to the intense and somewhat distorted shoot of Performance and subsequently fell off the radar as an actor – only making a mainstream comeback decades later in Sexy Beast. This was a great shame because he was, and still is a tremendous actor and therefore would have gained more acknowledgement and respect for his role which instead went to Michael Caine for Get Carter.
As a slice of musical cinema, Performance supported a great soundtrack from the day and at the time starred Mick Jagger at the peak of his powers. Nowadays it seems insane that a film starring one of the most recognisable entertainers on the planet wasn’t more successful or talked about at the time. This was partly due to the earlier release of Jagger’s other and less acclaimed film Ned Kelly (1970) which was bombed by the critics. Jagger therefore lost interest in filming and starring in movies and critics, along with audiences, consequently did the same. It was as if there was no time or place for Performance or Mick Jagger the ‘actor’, in mainstream cinema.
Performance as a cultural representation worked wonders too. With its confusing editing, jumping script, and off-centre direction, the film plays like a drug in-take gone wrong – perfectly capturing British counter-culture at the time. Even the opening scenes of Chas going about his ‘ordinary’ gangster ways seem to have a skewed quality. On the surface everything seems respectable coupled with a stiff upper lip, but scratch the surface and the dirt, the pornography and ‘free love’ is revealed. Qualities which Britain – and in truth the western world – would later give in to throughout the seventies.
With all this in mind Performance without doubt has to be one of the greatest representations of an ‘‘alternative society’’ on screen. Where as Easy Rider (1969) did the same for America – and is constantly referred to when discussing sex, drugs & rock ‘n’ roll – Performance is equally as important but less considered outside a cult following. It has influenced many great films including Fight Club (1999) – which parallels Performance both visually and in character development – and therefore has to be considered as one of the finest films ever to be injected into the bloodstream of both British and world cinema. It’s simply a forgotten masterpiece which needs to be viewed.
FMV Rating: *****