There sure is a lot swirling around in Performance, but I’m not convinced it all adds to much of anything. Performance seems more content in throwing its ideas around and not to engage with them in any meaningful way, and it all becomes a sensory overload before the end. Although, calling it the ending makes it sound like there’s a sense of finality to the story, and there’s not so much as an ellipsis upon an ellipsis like so much of the film.
Filmed in 1968, Warner Brothers shelved the film for two years before finally releasing it. They claimed the film was incoherent, which it is, before they finally released it and it seemed destined a cult film from the beginning. I suppose they thought the presence of Mick Jagger, in his screen debut, was going to be akin to Jailhouse Rock or A Hard Day’s Night but with a patina of Easy Rider on top, and boy were they wrong.
Performance begins by comparing English gangster life to the hedonism of the rock star lifestyle, then it transforms into a heady examination of the performative nature of gender, identity, and sexuality. There’s a hazy narcotic glamour, but one that’s been left to rot, and a weariness has set in. the comedown of the counter-cultural movement is written all over the sleepy eyes of Jagger’s hermitic rocker. Yet it’s his inebriated, pseudo-shamanistic charisma that proves the inferno to James Fox’s gangster-cum-moth to the flame.
One intriguing setup that gets a minor payoff is the idea that Jagger’s character has retired since he’s lost his “demon.” Enter James Fox’s gangster in hiding to his polyamorous lifestyle and regular supply of drugs. Fox disguises himself as someone else and slowly loses sight of his original identity throughout as he gets lost in the performance. He eventually subsumes Jagger and gets lost in the newly performed and drafted persona. There are layers there, but it’s the only idea that the film manages to payoff along the way.
It’s as if all of the viscera of the film, all of the frantic editing, the exploitative sex and violence, the magnetism of Jagger, wind up canceling each other out and Performance is ephemeral. It can feel more like work to get through it all, but there’s still the occasional flashes of brilliance. There’s just so much goofy, druggy 60s shit to get through to find it.