Might’ve expected more noise anticipating this Feb. 13 release: first time in DVD for the film that represented the (co-)directorial debuts of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell, and the screen debs of Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg. Maybe nobody in the decimated Warner ranks remembers that “Performance,” produced during 1968, is the spookiest and most accurately resonant rock fiction ever made, a dark shadow that gathered in the twilight days of flower power -- before Brian Jones’ demise, before Altamont, before Manson.
Lucifer was rising in the late ‘60s. With Christianity perceived as the despised Establishment, counterculture acolytes sought spiritual nourishment elsewhere, finding it in paganism’s tarot, astrology and ancient gods, as represented by the thinking of occultist Aleister Crowley, who’d expired two decades earlier. Crowley, often called The Beast, inspired the Rolling Stones and a circle of artists that included totemic filmmaker Kenneth Anger (Jagger created music for him; Marianne Faithfull acted) as well as Cammell and Roeg. When the Stones responded to the Beatles’ flower-powery 1967 opus “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (Crowley was pictured among the crowd on its cover) with “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” they opened a door that never swung shut.
Early Christians considered magicians to be death merchants and pagan gods to be demons, and you might say there’s something to that -- long-suppressed deities can run amok when released from their dungeon, as Jones might have attested, along with cursed occult admirers John Lennon (who picked Crowley for the “Pepper’s” cover), Jim Morrison (whose picture is on the wall in one “Performance” scene) and Led Zeppelin. Right before filming, the hash-stoked Stones had been celebrating Pan in Morocco with the musicians of Jajouka; the fertility pan-ic extended to personal relationships, with Pallenberg in particular having passed from Jones to Keith Richards to screen coitus with Jagger -- real according to some, and her “you horny little dick” smile on wiggling from beneath the bedsheet may have owed something to more than thespian genius.
Anyway, the movie. “Performance” left a deep mark on me, like some infernal unconscious rebirth -- I somehow don’t remember where or when in the early ‘70s I first experienced it, and few nonmusical details, aside from Jagger’s fluorescent dance and Pallenberg’s begauzed knockers, remained after several oblique encounters. Now that I’ve scrutinized the DVD a couple of times, I understand it better. Which may or may not be a good thing.
In every way, “Performance” is about united dualities -- starting with the bizarrely perfect collaboration of Cammell the idea guy and Roeg the image master. Though the film’s gritty color and psychedelic ambiance make for an abstract impression, the central merger of opposites -- ultraviolent gangster Chas (a brilliantly contained James Fox) with reclusive has-been rock star Turner (a magical Jagger) -- is hammered home in scene after scene with match cuts, dissolves and word juxtapositions to the point where, if you’re paying attention, the duo’s final identity switch is old news. Het becomes gay, man becomes woman, straight becomes hip. Pushing the same concept the same year, Jagger sang about how all the sinners are saints, and demanded, “As heads is tails, just call me Lucifer” -- the black-painter wanted us to think of him as the misunderstood Good Guy, having donned the devil horns as the flipped modern version of the white hat now that John Wayne and Charlton Heston were revealed to be pigs.
Insistent as the momentum becomes, the filmic vessel lists dangerously to larboard at first. Too much time goes to the gangster setup, where Chas is overexposed as the most amoral among chaps who ain’t at all nice, such as the grinning “businessman” Harry Flowers (a hilarious Johnny Shannon, who’d been hired as the dialect coach). There are some clever scenes, though, like the car dialogue where the hoodlums complain about the ill effects of film violence.
Amid all the twisted glory on display, special applause should go to scorer Jack Nitzsche, who hurls together his own cast of musical opposites. Old-timey sarcastoman Randy Newman rocks his ass off singing the limp-dick war cry “Gone Dead Train.” Pastoral string arrangements square off against the blues howl of Merry Clayton, the primitive mouth bow of Buffy Sainte-Marie and the proto-rap of the Last Poets. Nettled by Ry Cooder’s nasty slide guitar (which crawls all over the soundtrack), Jagger lazily spittoons the definitive “Memo From Turner,” a slice of poetic contempt unlike anything in the Stones catalog, largely because no other Stones play on it. The textured synthesizers of Beaver and Krause ooze from murky corners -- and judging from studio footage in the DVD’s odd “vintage featurette” (a square news clip that accompanied the release of “Performance”), one very Jajouka-like synth piece is noodled by Jagger himself.
There’s history here; a few lines of dialogue speak real-world truths that might have spurred Jagger to his natural wonder of a performance. Fox to Jagger: “Comical lit’l geezah. You’ll look funny when you’re 50.” Pallenberg to Fox: “His demon abandoned him. Now he’s got to figure out if he wants it back.” Jagger to Fox, who’s about to be driven to his doom: “I want to go with you.” Fox: “You don’t know where I’m going.” Increasingly mocked for self-parody, Jagger indeed nearly had to die to reclaim his cred -- many believe Meredith Hunter’s Altamont artillery was meant to kill him, and the threat had the fortunate effect of lending Jagger’s satanic pose some ballast. But the script’s author wasn’t Jagger; the more radical Cammell was the one who truly wanted to experience the ultimate. In 1996, he shot himself in the head.
I’ve puzzled over the difficult ending of “Performance,” and I now think Chas’ shooting of Turner is meant as a suicide. Turner is possessed by a death wish, see, but lacks the guts to follow up. His spirit and Chas’ have grown ever closer thanks to proximity, mutual recognition and magic mushrooms, and when Chas is preparing to depart the house and this world, Turner’s soul sees its chance and leaps into Chas’ body, driving Chas’ soul into Turner’s body. Turner/Chas fires the bullet into what used to be his own head, freeing Chas’ spirit, and goes off like a lamb to be slaughtered by the vengeful gangsters, who substitute for the hands he can’t raise against himself. As the death car glides away, the exchange becomes literal: We see Chas’ wig-topped face in the window, then Turner’s. That’s my take. You got a better one?
The DVD includes the inept theatrical trailer, the aforementioned ponderous promo clip, and a new documentary, “Influence and Controversy.” The documentary is okay, featuring commentary from people involved in the peril-fraught process of recutting and releasing “Performance” to an unprepared world and a clueless press corps. Words from a wizened Pallenberg are also welcome. But it would’ve been great to get some wisdom from Fox, who was so shaken by his film experience that he retired from acting for over a decade. No Jagger, either. Both appear in the documentary “Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance,” which I haven’t seen and which doesn’t seem to be available on video. Would’ve been great to have THAT in the package.
In closing, let me make an embarrassing confession. I recently wallowed in the 2006 DVD “Stoned,” which fictionalizes the last days of Brian Jones. (Thanks, Dave and Lynn.) “Stoned” is bad, and, despite the wild subject matter and considerable nudity, it even manages to be kind of dull. But unlike “Performance,” it gave me a bona fide acid flashback -- complete with acid mouth, tooth grinding and mild hallucinations.
Now I need to consider the possibility that the Rolling Stones and “Performance,” which have represented personal windows on alternate realities since I was a young idiot, really settle on the same level of cheap stimulation/exploitation as “Stoned.” Or lower. And that’s fucked up.