Performance Review

Surely, there is some irony to the idea of Mick Jagger playing a fading rockstar. While sometimes wavering on the cusp of self-parody, his star power is too big to fail. Never a dim or dull moment within his career (except for the recent, puttering output), Jagger’s reach into the silver screen was, perhaps, inevitable. Performance allows him to play ball with James Fox, who upon seeing the reaction to this Nicolas Roeg feature, took a decade-long break from acting. Surely, the impact of this Jagger and Fox collaboration cannot be so horrifying? Critics shunned its initial release, and to its credit, that is the leading draw of the film, where its violence and over-sexualised nature are drawn upon when showing the high society lifestyle of a gangster on the run. 

Those imitable charms Roeg can offer are on full display here. He has trouble with the cuts and choices he makes in the early moments. We are given glimmers of hustle and bustle, with Chas (Fox) is chauffeured around, but the sudden cuts away from that add little and set up nothing in particular. They are short, though, and forgivable too. A harsh man clobbering his way through a minicab company spars well with the ethics and legal jargon that dribbles from the mouth of a lawyer elsewhere. Levi Strauss would be spinning in his grave if he could see and hear these binary opposites at work. Simplicity is fine, but contextually, Performance does little, if anything, with these topics.  

Where it comes to life though is in those moments of horror. Tortured souls inflict damage and destruction wherever they turn. Fox is eerily good at it, one of the undersung heroes of the gangster British gangster boom. Fox’s performance wavers between reliably brilliant and out of his depth. He is a prototype of the stereotypes. He slicks his hair back, kicks his feet up on the chair in a position that looks uncomfortable but cool, and he elicits the violence and danger inherent to the James Cagney era of heavy-hitting villains. Hard-nosed police officers rumble around the scenes of the crimes he conjures up, and those moments do detail the horrible impact of Chas’ actions. He is the cocky character we love to hate, and the detail we are given when he starts to brush shoulders with Turner (Jagger) is delightful. 

Roeg would work with rockstars once again with The Man Who Fell to Earth, another successful collaboration between director and artist, but with David Bowie instead of Jagger. Performance is neither better nor worse than that later instalment, but his work here with Jagger and Fox makes for an innovative feature. Roeg is hypnotised by the possibilities, and as such makes for some startling discoveries with what can be done with the simplicity of a narrative. Not everything works. This is a “see what sticks” operation, but most of it does stick, and it lingers rather well. Contrasting the gangster tensions with an off-kilter rockstar about to implode, Performance holds within it a beautifully enforced lack of clarity that hurls these stars into new, unrivalled areas for their craft. It is their spellbinding but shocking work that soon turns into the main draw of the film, but also the least memorable part. 

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