Satisfaction! The return of Mick Jagger’s 1970 ”Performance”
Watching Mick Jagger now, still preening and mincing on stage like an arthritic peacock at 63, it’s almost impossible to imagine him as he once was: the epitome of danger.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Rolling Stones not only sang about the devil, but had sympathy for him. And the fact that they also presided like fiddling Neros over the Flower-Power comedown of Altamont, where a young man was brutally stomped and stabbed to death in the audience by the Hell’s Angels, somehow made the band’s dark mystique that much more potent. Afterwards, Jagger and Co. were rock ‘n’ roll’s Luciferian poster boys — the androgynously apocalyptic embodiments of sex, drugs, and doom. Another pillar of Jagger’s dangerous persona from that era was Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s experimental 1970 cult film, Performance (just out on DVD for the first time ever).
Part Cockney gangster film and part psychedelic freak-out, Performance is like a cross between Get Carter and Blow Out with a liberal dash of philosophical mumbo jumbo and nudity thrown in to spice things up. It’s also a dazzlingly freaky, candy-colored time capsule of sexual hedonism and nonchalant drug use set in swinging ’60s London. All it’s missing is an Austin Powers cameo.
Jagger, in his first-ever film role, plays a reclusive pop star named Turner, who lives in a dilapidated old mansion in London’s then-seedy Notting Hill neighborhood. Lazing about in silky caftans, smoking dope, and frolicking in the sack with a pair of exotic nymphettes — real-life Stones hanger-on and all-around Nordic ice princess Anita Pallenberg and the boyishly sexy French actress Michelle Breton. The three of them essentially just have orgies, do drugs, and read Borges. No doubt, Jagger had a hard time finding his character’s motivation.
Then one day, a sharp-dressed, short-fused South London gangster played by James Fox (Day of the Jackal) turns up on their doorstep. As we’ve witnessed in the more linear first half of the film, Fox’s Chas Devlin has upset his crime boss by acting on his own once too often. And now a posse of goons is hunting him down. After overhearing a conversation about Jagger’s magical mystery crash pad, Fox decides to show up unannounced and hide out there. Man, is he in for a treat.
Once there, Jagger and his pair of stoner sirens mess with his head and feed him magic mushrooms. Pallenberg in particular, in an ever-more-revealing series of see-through dashikis, seduces and toys with him. I’ll say this for Pallenberg, she wasn’t much of an actress, but if you were a gangster on the lam, there are a lot worse spider’s webs you could get caught in. With her blonde, bed-head hair and chisel-sharp cheek bones that made her look like Thor’s Norse mistress, she casts a spell on the camera. Of course, leave it to a Casanova-like Jagger to be completely unfazed as she writhes atop him in their Maharishi love nest.
Performance was a revolutionary film when it came out in 1970. And in a lot of ways, it still is. Cammell’s script distills the essence of what we imagine life as an LSD-taking London Lothario would be like. And Roeg, who later went on to direct classics like Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, is a visual daredevil. Together, their hypnotically non-linear, acid-influenced storytelling sweeps you up into a sort of inscrutable trance.
Not all of Performance has aged well. Some of its more literary ambitions now seem like pure hooey. And the ending attempts to be a pre-Shyamalanian mindbender, but winds up being more of a pretentious cop-out. Still, Performance captures its moment in time perfectly. A moment when Mick Jagger may have been the coolest, most beautiful devil alive.