PERFORMANCE (1970) (Blu-ray)
Directors: Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell
Warner Archive Collection

The movie containing the first acting role for Rolling Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger, a cockney crime drama combined with a very late 1960s counterculture edginess, PERFORMANCE gets a surprise Blu-ray release courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.

In East London, young Chas (James Fox, THE SERVANT) is a dapper but sadistic thug working for gang boss Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon, THAT’LL BE THE DAY). When Flowers takes over the betting shop owned by Joey Maddocks (Anthony Valentine, THE MONSTER CLUB), he warns Chas not to get involved as the two share a complicated history. Chas trashes Maddocks’ shop and humiliates him, but when Maddocks and his sidekicks break into his flat in an attempt to turn the tables on him, Chas shoots him. Realizing this is not going to settle well with Flowers and his boys, Chas plans his getaway after coloring his hair with red paint and Brylcreem, with sights on leaving for the United States. Keeping communication with a friend on the outside, Tony Farrell (familiar Brit character actor Ken Colley, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), arrangements for a phony passport are to be made, but in the meantime, Chas has to hide out. Overhearing a conversation between a musician and his elderly mother in a train station, Chas locates the town house owned by reclusive rock musician Turner (Jagger) and rings the front door looking to rent the basement room.

Assuming the name “Johnny Dean” and passing himself off as juggler, Chas is first refused occupancy by the reclusive and eccentric Turner, but he is persuades his host (whose chart-topping days are clearly behind him) to let him stay on. With Chas’ entertainer facade quickly wearing thin, and his handgun exposed, Turner discovers Chas’ true identity, as do his two lovers, the voluptuous German-accented Pherber (Anita Pallenberg, BARBARELLA) and stickfigure French bird Lucy (Michele Brenton, WEEKEND), as Chas garnishes physical pleasures from both. With the three becoming more fascinated with their tough and rather homophobic tenant, they feed him hallucinatory mushrooms as he becomes more and more integrated in their world (they also apply him with make-up, a bushy wig, and effeminate outfits). But with Chas getting deeper into Turner’s carefree lifestyle, he neglects his outside connection and his planned getaway, giving his old boss and his cronies ample opportunity to land his whereabouts.

During the first half of the 1960s, British movies with pop stars were mostly light, comical affairs embracing rather wholesome scenarios of swinging London. It would take the acting debut of the lead singer of the Rolling Stones (no strangers to controversy) to put rock and roll cinema in the opposite direction, a darker more abstract world which historically, the turmoil of the late 1960s tended to represent. The film’s pre-production always had Jagger in mind (writer/co-director Cammell had wanted to work with the rock icon for years), and the role of Turner was tailor made for him, with the character’s androgynous appearance and the mystique that embodies him. Although the part of a faded pop performer (and the sexual chemistry he shared on and off screen with Pallenberg, who was actually band mate Keith Richards’ lover at the time) couldn’t have been all that demanding for Jagger, this is his most memorable screen appearance in a part-time acting career consisting of mostly forgettable roles. For Stones fans, PERFORMANCE’s 1968 shooting period will easily be detectable since Jagger looks very much the same as he did during the Stones’ “Rock and Roll Circus” special as well as for the photo shoot for their “Beggar’s Banquet” album, which featured “Sympathy for the Devil” (PERFORMANCE was not released until 1970). During a pseudo dream sequence in the film, Jagger sings the haunting, energetic and raunchy-sounding “Memo From Turner”, arguably one of the best songs he’s ever written and it features blaring slide guitar work by Ry Cooder. The late Jack Nitzsche provides the appropriately bizarre score, and soundtrack songs are provided by the likes of Cooder, Merry Clayton, Buffy Sainte-Marie, The Last Poets and Randy Newman, whose infectious rocker “Gone Dead Train” opens and closes the film.

A fascinatingly ugly film indeed, PERFORMANCE is not for every filmgoer’s taste (some have called it the best gangster movie ever made in England while others find it pretentious and nonsensical) yet its hypnotically intriguing to watch with all its violence (sadistic whippings, a bullet entering a skull, and a punishing head-shaving that’s hard to look it), drug use and rather unglamorous on-screen sex. Top-billed Fox (who was reportedly so affected by the experience, it took him years to take on another feature film role) plays the psychotic character with a kind of Michael Caine-esque 1960s era toughness, and is able to convey likeability and identifiability once Chas enters Turner’s ultra Bohemian and secluded world. Both making their directorial debuts, Cammell (who took his own life in 1996) had written a few screenplays (including THE TOUCHABLES) and Roeg was a celebrated cinematographer (whose credits included MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and FAHRENHEIT 451) who would also photograph PERFORMANCE. With its numerous unique camera angles and trick shots, and at times employing a cross-cutting editing style, the film, with its over ambiguous final shot, shares the style and flair of both auteurs, though the overall conception was the brainchild of Cammell (with the original script going through a number of changes from before the final cut).

Originally released by Warner Bros with an X rating (it’s since been re-rated a more suitable “R”), PERFORMANCE once played the midnight movie and arthouse circuit, and has enjoyed release on every home video format in the U.S., including VHS, laserdisc and DVD. The 2007 DVD had an unforgivable error, which removed Jagger’s hollering of “Here’s to Old England” during the performance of “Memo From Turner”. Fans of the films will be happy to know that the line has been restored on this Blu-ray, as are the original voices of Johnny Shannon and the young actress who plays the housekeeper’s daughter (both voices, re-dubbed for the American theatrical version, were also restored on the 2007 DVD). Running a full 105 minutes, the longest known released cut of the film, the Blu-ray can easily be described as the most definitive home video release of the film to date, presented in 1080p High Definition and in a 1.85:1 anamorphic aspect ratio. Colors are bold and well saturated, while detail is extremely sharp. With the obvious improved textures over the previous DVD, skintones look very natural and there’s nothing in the way of print damage visible. Any restoration work done has kept the movie’s grain structure intact, with no noticeable noise reduction or edge enhancement. The English DTS-HD Master Audio mono track offers the memorable score nice and clear with adequately leveled dialogue and sound effects. English SDH subtitles are also included.

Extras include “Performance: Influence and Controversy” (24:49 ) originally produced for the 2007 DVD. This contains interviews with producer Stanford Lieberson, associate producer David Cammell, actress Pallenberg (unrecognizable now), camera operator Mike Malloy, editor Antony Gibbs, editor Frank Mazzola, former Warner Bros executive Fred Weintraub and Jack Nitzsche Jr. (son of the film’s composer). The swift yet comprehensive piece has the participants discussing David Litvinoff (the friend of real-life criminal Ronald Kray who worked as a technical advisor and dialogue coach on the film), that the casting was originally to have Brando in the Chas role, the film’s many references (in art, literature and music), Warner’s initial and almost fatal detest of the film and more. “Memo From Turner” (4:54) is a vintage featurette which emphasizes Jagger’s star appeal and features behind-the-scenes footage of Cammell and Roeg directing him. The original Warner Bros. theatrical trailer rounds out the extras. (George R. Reis)