Performance (1970) Blu-ray Review: Mick Jagger Highlights Psychedelic Cult Classic

For those of you who wonder what that whole "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" thing is like.
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Whenever people ask me how my day was, I tend to tell them that I won't honestly be able to give them an answer to their inquiry until a little after 11:59pm. And my slightly-sane reasoning behind my sarcasm offers up the argument that it is hard to sum something up that hasn't fully concluded yet. Likewise, if one were to make a movie about the life of a famous person whilst the individual in question is still alive, the entire point seems a bit moot. The same goes for motion pictures that are all about an entire decade: it's hard to tell everybody how great the 2010s are if you make a movie today in 2014. Well, you could, yes, but it would ultimately only be ideal for archival and retrospective purposes only, as it will only wind up horribly dating itself by the time 2015 rolls around.

And it is by way of that poorly written introduction that I wander in the subject at hand, the psychedelic British gangster noir flick Performance. Magically capturing the whole of the three very quintessential elements that made the swingin' '60s in London the wild ride it really was - sex, drugs, and rock and roll - Performance was actually filmed during that precocious period wherein the bulk of those aspects were perhaps at their most extreme. 1968, to be precise - which was a much better time to capture those aspects on film than, say, 1964.

(Honestly, Your Honor, I'm not insane. You have to read between the lines here. Look, how about I just continue on with telling people about the movie instead? Thank you.)

So then, where were we? Ah, yes: Performance. We begin, kids, with a grating and gritty look at the everyday life of gangster Chaz (James Fox), whose very existence revolves around violence - from intimidating those who owe his boss money, from the occasional bit of rough sex from the disposable companion he picked up the night before. In fact, the well-dressed bigoted creep outright loves violence. He's a bona fide violence artist, to be absolutely clear - and his lust for said sometimes gets the best of him. While the subject matter is grim, the film's direction at this point is very straight - in every respect.

But when the psychotic outcast manages to make a small article of business entirely too personal, he is forced to do that which most thugs cut from the dark and dreary fabric of film noir do: go into hiding. And it is here that Performance changes course and shifts gears like you wouldn't believe. Overhearing a conversation that opens up the path to a potential safe house, Chaz heads to a less illustrious neighborhood in London - wherein he winds up posing as a juggler (!) in order to (awkwardly) fit in with the bohemian residents of a flat owned by the mysterious Turner (the one and only Mick Jagger, in a surprisingly magnificent dramatic film debut). Like Chaz, Turner himself is an artist, though his speciality is that of music.

Well, it was. Turner fell off the radar some time ago, on account of losing "his demon" (muse) and desire to continue. Instead, our man T spends most of his time on drugs, listening to music, and having sex with women and men alike. (In short: it's the perfect part for Mick Jagger.) When we first meet Turner, he is the male partner in casual MFF triangle with his German lady friend Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and a freckled French bird by the name of Lucy (Michèle Breton). Needless to say, our homophobic antagonist lead is not at all comfortable in his temporary surroundings, and does his best to act his self-appointed part out whilst waiting for his friend (Kenneth Colley, whom you Star Wars fans will recognize as Admiral Piett) to come through with a forged passport so Chaz can escape to a life of violent freedom in America (where, sadly, he would fit in all too well).

During his short time there, Turner psychoanalyzes his unwanted houseguest, opening a whole into his mind so he can figure out what makes him tick. It isn't until Pherber serves Chaz a special fried mushroom that both our onscreen characters as well as ourselves are able to experience the inner workings of Chaz's mind, highlighted by a hallucinatory moment with a dapper Jagger performing a number especially written for the movie; a scene that essentially served as a prototype to MTV music videos over a decade later. Additionally, Performance was one of the first movies to utilize the Moog synthesizer in its incidental score, brought to life here by the late Jack Nitzsche.

The initial release of Performance met with a great deal of controversy. Audiences were stunned by the graphic violence and gratuitous sex featured on-screen (which is somewhat tame by today's standards), and many people left the previews outraged (and no doubt puzzled) over what they had seen. This led to a two-year post-production hell to a general release of the film, by which time the film's directors - Nicholas Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth) and Donald Cammell (Demon Seed) - had both moved onto other projects, wherein American editor Frank Mazzola was called in to make it more marketable to audiences.

Mazzola's editing only added sugar atop of the acid trip of a film itself, which succeeded in garnering a midnight movie cult when the movie hit American cinemas in 1970, by which time the sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle of the previous decade had found a new home - especially in the big cities. In a way, Performance may have been the only film in history to actively predict the upcoming decade in one country by showing it the previous span of another.

Performance not only opens your orbs and synapses to a lifestyle that, for the most part, is no longer in practice (at least not in the same way we see it here, in a pre-AIDS, pre-meth, pre-crappy modern music world), but it also comes with generous side portions of trivia. It is fascinating to note that Pallenberg was the girlfriend of Rolling Stones songwriter/guitarist Keith Richards, and that her all-too-realistic sex scenes with Jagger reportedly caused a fuming Richards to camp out in a car outside. Marlon Brando was originally slated to take the lead, before the up-and-coming James Fox landed the part (additionally, Marianne Faithfull, Tuesday Weld, and Mia Farrow were supposed to be cast as one lead actress or another, but were forced to drop out due to pregnancy or injuries). The top-billed Fox withdrew from acting shortly after making the feature due to stress, too much DMT, and the personal tragedy of his father's death. Writer/co-director Donald Cammell committed suicide in 1996, allegedly after the producer of Wild Side cut the film into direct-to-video fodder.

Released on home video several times in the past with various alterations, from Warner Brothers dubbing over several actors' Cockney accents for fear of confusing us dumb Yanks to the omission of a line in Jagger's musical number "Memo from Turner" on the DVD from 2007. While I'm uncertain as to which soundtrack is included here in this DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix with regards to the accents (it's obvious that Johnny Shannon's dialogue has been looped), Jagger's song has been restored to its fullest (though you'll notice a difference in sound when you hear it). And though it's a bit of pity that the original mono track is nowhere to be heard here, the rest of the audio track is a joy to behold. (English subtitles are included for those of you who still have issues with accents, Cockney or otherwise.)

The overall video presentation of the Warner Archive Collection's Blu-ray of Performance is also quite wonderful, further enabling the Turners of the world to see much clearer when they get into Chaz's head. The special features from the 2007 DVD have been ported over for this much-needed Blu-ray release, and include a short documentary on the film's Influence and Controversy (wherein you will hear a different voice for Johnny Shannon's dialogue, FYI), a vintage promotional piece for Jagger's song from the film (and the making-of it), and the original theatrical trailer of the film, which pretty much sums up the bizarre journey you're signing up for.

Should you choose to take such a trip, that is. But please take my word that this is one outstanding Performance to be had all-around. And I don't need to wait until 11:59pm tonight to tell you that, either.

Highly recommended.

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