In his underrated 1991 novel Flicker, Theodore Roszak conjures a fictional cult B-film with destructive powers. It's a variation on the idea that a single song or, today, a Ringu-like video can kill you. Well, if there's one film in the history of cinema that may truly qualify as having hex-like powers, it is Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance. Released in 1970 (but shot in 1968), it virtually defined its times and went on to have a hypnotic influence on the certain clandestine elements of the public. Unknown but to a clued-in few, Cammell's script also had its roots in the magic of Aleister Crowley, the meta fictions of Borges, and Artaud's theory of madness, a heady cocktail of mainstream-culture-undermining forces. Performance also represents a number of "firsts": It's the first film to marry the British urban crime narrative to rock and roll, the first film to incorporate a rock video into its narrative, the first film score to use a Moog synthesizer, the first film to endorse drug use as a positive life-changing experience. These and other qualities make Performance, in the estimation of Colin McCabe (in his superb book on the film for the British Film Institute, to which this review should be viewed as slightly less than a footnote), "the greatest British film ever made," and "a genuine act of magic."
The story is simple in its duality. Chas (James Fox) is an enforcer, or in the jargon of the criminal underworld in which he successfully dwells, a "performer" (one slice of the title's multiple meanings). He works for Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon), a character based on London crime lord Ronnie Kray. As MacCabe writes, Chas isn't violent, he is violence. But after Chas disobeys one of Harry's orders, he's forced to go on the run, ending up, by happenstance, in the Notting Hill mansion of Turner (Mick Jagger, in his screen debut), a former pop star now living as a recluse with two women. It's square meets hip as Turner and his wenches turn Chas on and around, "dismantling" him, in the film's parlance. Unfortunately, Chas still has a date with Harry. The making of Performance was long and complex, with Warner Bros. disliking the result and demanding cuts and re-edits, leading to a two-year delay between its shooting and its release. But the delay gave Cammell time to make the film's second half more ambiguous. The meaning of the last scene is the subject of much debate. Suffice it to say here that Chas and Turner merge and redefine themselves in a sort of suicide pact. In a sense, the merged duality of Chas and Turner is mirrored by the tense mutuality of Cammell and Roeg as co-directors on the set, and MacCabe makes the point that it is impossible to anatomize their contributions. The picture's continual and evolving use of mirrors underscores the theme of identity and self-reflection, and the characters are constantly commenting on each other. In fact, today it is amusing to hear Chas say of Turner, "Comical little geezer. You'll look funny when you're fifty."
* * *
Warner Home Video offers Performance on DVD in a beautiful anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) of Roeg's luscious and varied images. The monaural Dolby Digital audio is adequate, with English subtitles that help wend the viewer's way through the underworld accents. As usual, Warner has silently restored a few seconds of images as well as Shannon's vocal track, which was apparently dubbed over for the American market. Extras are threefold. "Performance: Influence and Controversy" (24 min.) offers a production history of the film and features interviews with David Cammell (Donald's brother, who produced the film), Colin MacCabe, producer Sandy Lieberson, co-star Anita Pallenberg, editors Antony Gibbs and Frank Mazzola, camera operator Mike Molloy, Warner exec Fred Weintraub, and Jack Nitzsche, Jr., son of the film's composer. Among the tidbits unveiled are that Marlon Brando was originally up for the role of Chas, and that Cammell had a real-life thing for threesomes. Next is "Memo From Turner" (4 min.), a contemporaneous promotional doc about the film's music, showing the Moog synthesizer at work, and a reiteration of the film's Dylanesque music video song. Finally, there is the full-frame trailer (2 min.) with Warner's stentorian trailer narrator of the time clashing with the film's hippie imagery. Keep-case.