Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Rocktober: 'Performance' (1970)

No one knew what to make of Performance in 1970 (or in 1968, when it was made and then shelved by Warner Bros.), and although it's since become a beloved cult classic, I can't say I really know what to make of it now. It's unmistakably a Nicolas Roeg film (it was Roeg's directorial debut, co-directed with painter/screenwriter Donald Cammell): Within the first minute you get explicit sex, arty montage editing and off-putting sound design. There's a plot, but it's subordinate to the barrage of surreal images and the philosophical rambling and the (very good) music. I can't say that I much liked Performance, but it was always interesting to watch.

This is a rock movie because it stars The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger, and because apparently the studio expected a light romp capitalizing on a rock star's fame. When Roeg and Cammell turned in this baffling, aggressive, explicit art project, the studio freaked out and held it back for two years, only to release it to terrible reviews. It's not hard to see why, since Performance is deliberately obtuse and alienating, with characters who are inscrutable and often annoying. The story is ostensibly about a gangster (James Fox) on the run who hides out by renting a room from a reclusive, washed-up rock star (Jagger) and his two live-in lovers. Over time, he gets sucked into their hedonistic world, but even before that the movie engages in obtuse stylistic diversions, and gangster Chas is just as mysterious a character as Turner and his ladies, behaving petulantly in front of his superiors and engaging in inexplicable whimsical behavior. Once he shacks up with Turner, he really lets himself cut loose.

Although it has an undeniable artistry to it, Performance often plays like a parody of the drug-fueled excesses of the '60s, and a lot of its pseudo-profound moments are just silly. The best part of the movie is when Roeg and Cammell give up any pretense of plot or dialogue and just shoot what is essentially a proto-music video, for Jagger's excellent song "Memo From Turner." That stretch of a few minutes shows the filmmakers capturing every bit of Jagger's rock-star allure, while throwing in plenty of weird, disturbing images along the way. A full-on musical might have been more satisfying than this confounding but often striking film.

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