Chas (James Fox), a young gangster in late 1960s East London, runs into a spot of bother when he lets his personal history interfere with the latest hit. When he finds himself the next target for his former colleagues, Chas flees and searches for a place to lie low for a while. He stumbles upon a basement room that’s recently been vacated, and blags his way in. However, his new landlord is none other than former rockstar Turner (Mick Jagger), whose bohemian lifetstyle with live-in-lovers Pherber and Lucy (Anita Pallenberg and Michele Breton) isn’t exactly the kind of surroundings Chas is used to.
When I compiled my list of the films from the 1001 Movies list that I’m least looking forward to watching, I kind of cheated a little bit with my inclusion of Performance. You see, all the other films on that list were ones I hadn’t seen before, and I was dreading them purely based on things like hearsay, length and subject matter. Performance, on the other hand, is a film I’ve seen and knowingly disliked, and I didn’t relish the opportunity to watch it again, but watch it I did.
First time around – and bear in mind this was when I was around 20 and didn’t know too much about film appreciation (although many would argue that I still don’t) – I wasn’t exactly taken with the stylistic choices director Nicolas Roeg had opted for. There’s a lot of inter-cutting, close-ups where by all rights close-ups should not be used, and the occasional asides from characters to the camera, in a wait-is-he-looking-at-me? kind of way. I’m still not fully on board with these choices – to be honest I’d have prefered a straight London gangster plot – but I can at least appreciate why they were made. You see, this is very much a film about two worlds merging together and bleeding into one another. Just as Chas’ criminal underbelly invades Turner’s free love boarding house, so too does Turner’s drug-addled mindset seep through to Chas’ more regimental career. Both men are on paths of self destruction, but both need the other’s help to see it through.
Which brings us quite nicely onto the main stunt casting of the film and my belief as to the reason it’s on the 1001 List; Mick Jagger. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a passing fan of the Rolling Stones – I regularly listen to Rolled Gold, one of their greatest hits albums, but none of their other work – but I can’t say I’ve been overly fond of their forays into film making so far. Here, Jagger is essentially playing a version of himself – aging rockstar with a hedonistic lifestyle – and so as far as that’s concerned he performs well. He even gets to sing a few songs, one of which could be the most memorable scene of the film, featuring Turner dressed in a business suit and playing Chas’ former employer Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon), with Chas’ colleagues around him stripping and gyrating. It’s distinctly odd, and surreal – it is a dream sequence after all – and it fits into the rest of the film, but I never really felt at any point that Jagger was truly acting.
Also, whilst we don’t meet Jagger’s Turner until 42 minutes in, when there’s less than an hour remaining of the film, there are several shots or subliminal frames of him much earlier in the film. Apparently this was part of the deal Jagger made to appear in the film, meaning he would actually be in it a great deal more than he was supposed to, whilst still only being in a little over half of the story. Whilst it secured more screen time, in my opinion it lessened the overall effect of his performance. In fact, I think he’d have made far more of an impact had the first time we meet Jagger been the first time he meets Chas and tries to kick him out of the building, around halfway through the film. It’s a terrific scene – he’s introduced via ceiling mirror – but the character is watered down from the aforementioned earlier shots and his actual introduction – unconscious on a bed, being photographed by one of his ladyfriends before she kisses then mounts him, and then in a bathtub with the two of them. You get the feeling both of those scenes were added by Jagger as well.
There’s a lot of other striking imagery from the film – the scene where Chas is beaten and stripped before he goes on the run culminates in him dressed only in his underpants, loose necktie and slashed shirt, bloody and holding a gun with tied hands in a room recently redecorated with thrown tins of bright red paint is a terrific one. Also, the various disguises Chas adopts throughout the movie are at least interesting. The dialogue all seems to be from dream sequences – there’s an extended cyclical conversation using the words red, dead, died and dyed that does nothing but spin your head in circles and go nowhere with it, and all in all it makes me very glad I didn’t live through the late 60s and early 70s.
The second half, whilst messy, is most definitely intentionally so, but fortunately the plot elements established in the first act are not forgotten, and do come through to a conclusion. Unfortunately, the conclusion they reach is one that I just don’t understand. I won’t go into spoilers, but if anyone has some insight into exactly why the characters do as they do then I’d love to hear it. Also, I couldn’t quite believe this first time around and had to go back and check, but the voice of Noel, the singer Chas’ overhears talking about the spare room, was dubbed over by none other than Ian McShane. Overall, I appreciated the film a little better this time around than when I first saw it, but it’s not something I’ll be going back to again, and I didn’t see a whole lot here worth recommending.
Choose life 5/10