Performance is much ado about too little. It engendered a massive scandal at the time it was made, due to a lot of onscreen decadence which is mostly tame today; Warner Brothers panicked when they saw it and more or less shelved it for a decade after it received an X rating. Now it’s been released on DVD in a relatively uncut version, but it’s again hard to tell if the resulting muddle is due to Comstockery or just that it’s not a very good movie, period. Allegedly half an hour or more of the film was scissored out to make it releasable, but sitting through that much more of a movie this unfocused and ultimately uninteresting isn’t my idea of a good time.
The movie purports to be a study of colliding underground lifestyles: a British mob enforcer, Chas (James Fox, very good), and Turner (Mick Jagger), a former rock star who hung it all up to go shack up with some girls and a whole bunch of drugs in a basement apartment in London. Chas feels vaguely unwelcome in his line of work, and strives a little too hard to impress his employers — so much so that he eventually incurs the wrath of a rival gang. When he kills one of their enforcers, he goes on the lam, and after some obscuring of his tracks he ends up bluffing his way into renting out a room in Turner’s place.
Then the movie begins to lay on the symbolism and the psychedelic imagery, as we see Chas and Turner begin to merge personalities, or exchange personalities, or something. This takes the form of having the normally tough, conservatively-dressed Chas put on a wig and makeup and a poet’s shirt, and get stoned and loll around in bed with a boyish-looking French girl and not really mind all that much that he’s missing out on a chance to escape to New York City. Some of the scenes have a kind of bizarre charm to them, but too much of the time it’s just Chas and Turner talking past each other — one bluffing and the other half-drowned in his pleasures. By the time we hit the two-thirds mark it’s become a chore to sit through, and then there’s a gimmick ending which is about as profound as the magic trick where every card you pull out of the deck is the ace of hearts.
The National Lampoon once had a mocking accolade for movies like this: “Black Means Death, See?” Award. Anyone who reads my reviews knows I’m not against difficult or challenging movies; I welcome them. But they have to hold up their end of the bargain, and Performance just comes off as being too obviously an artifact of the times, where head games and stoner formulas passed for profundity. Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, the co-directors, apparently were at fairly stiff odds as to how to put the pieces together, and maybe that explains a good deal of the disjointedness on display. (The story about the movie’s genesis is frankly more interesting than the film itself.)
...and ends up in the cluttered basement apartment of druggie-rocker Turner.
where a not-terribly-involving exchange of personalities takes place.
The end result is two kinds of movie patched together: the one with Chas, where he tries to stay a step ahead of both his enemies and his cronies, and the Jagger film, which is like the outtakes from a Swinging London musical that was never finished. To wit: at one point Jagger does a musical number / fantasy takeoff on Chas’s gangster posturing, but it doesn’t tell us anything we can’t already figure out from the movie’s algebra. The two are inclined to trade places or at least points of view, but they seem to be doing so mostly for the sake of having something happen in front of the camera. A film about the mutability of personality should at least have personalities worth watching in the first place, don’t you think?