dir. Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg
Opens Fri Sept 28 at the Grand Illusion.
For all its philosophical meandering, homosexual finger-wagging, and stylistic experimentalism, Performance's durability as an artifact of late '60s British film is chiefly attributable to one feature: the presence of Mick Jagger at the height of his Satanic majesty. Shaggy hair, black velvet, glossy lips, and all, he never looked more beautifully Mick than in 1968, when Performance was made under the direction of Nicolas Roeg (and the historically undercredited Donald Cammell).
As Turner Purple, a slender variation on his own public image as a drug-addled rock-star recluse--waking up to three-way sex, chomping mushrooms, smoking endless joints, and wanking on expensive electronic musical gear--Jagger seems simply to be playing himself, or playing around with the idea of himself for the benefit of Cammell's psychedelic meditation on fame, violence, identity, and the city of London.
And really, even if that were all that was going on, the film would still be of some interest now. But just as Performance is about far more than Turner, Mick Jagger's performance as Turner is about far more than just Mick Jagger. Look beyond those glistening lips and you can see that in portraying the self-destructive burnout that is Turner, Mick is really crafting a synthesis of two other rock stars he knew intimately--his bandmates Brian Jones and Keith Richards--and giving us an eerie look at the Machiavellian processes of his stardom.
This film captures Jagger at a precarious moment in Rolling Stones mythology; they were still pretty much a singles band at a time when the Beatles were making huge advances in the art of the LP. Despite their massive fame and popularity, the Stones (like the Who) were living 45 to 45, languishing in secret fear of fading away because they hadn't yet figured out how to make great albums (though Beggars Banquet, their first real attempt, was close at hand). Added to which, the peace-and-love pop moment didn't much suit the Stones' sensibilities. They needed to reclaim their sound, a task made nearly impossible because of the growing rift between Jones, well on his way to drug madness, and Jagger, who had overshadowed Jones' leadership when he started writing all the band's hits with Keith Richards.
All of this craziness goes into Turner, a flaky head case living out his baroque decay in a crumbling London mansion shared by his two nubile lovers--the voluptuous Anita Pallenberg and the gamine, androgynous Michèle Breton.
It's crucial to remember, though, that Mick Jagger was never a flake, nor really a recluse. He was always too shrewd to let '60s decadence cloud over his ambition to be the world's greatest rock star, which, of course, he was. It's that shrewdness that allows him to inhabit Turner with a combination of love and loathing; there in his stately pleasure dome, wearing Mick Jagger's skin, Turner is instantly iconic. But as his segment in the film goes on, we're told that he's washed up, a former star caught in the archetypal conundrum of success: no obstacles, no inspiration. Not until the film's lead character, Chas (the great James Fox, who actually manages to be way cooler than Mick), appears does Turner begin to see just how washed up he has truly become; death is his only recourse.
That was in 1968--when Jagger was nervous, Richards loaded, and Jones fried beyond repair. By the time the film was released, in 1971, Jones was two years dead, and the Stones, led decisively by Mick, were just beginning to bask in the full-length glory of Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. Hmm.
In the film, Turner allows himself to be a ritual sacrifice so that Chas may become him. Why? Well, it's a little hard to say. By the end of Performance, things get a bit incoherent (not unlike the peak of a mushroom trip). But in real life, the sacrifice was Brian Jones, who died in 1969, allowing Mick to take the reins forever. The cult of rock conspiracies has always had it that Jones, who drowned in his own swimming pool, was actually murdered, and that Mick had some hand in it. We'll never know the truth. But if you believe Mick capable of such a sinister act--and how can you not?--Performance is either a great alibi or one hell of a confession.