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the Complete Review
the complete review - film


Colin MacCabe

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To purchase Performance

Title: Performance
Author: Colin MacCabe
Genre: Film
Written: 1998
Length: 82 pages
Availability: Performance - US
Performance - UK
Video: Performance - US
Performance - UK
  • Part of the BFI Film Classics series
  • About the 1970 Donald Cammell / Nicolas Roeg film, Performance, starring James Fox, Mick Jagger, and Anita Pallenberg

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Our Assessment:

B+ : entertaining little book about an unusual film

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Hist. J. of Film, Radio, and TV . 6/1999 E.J.M.Duggan
Sight and Sound . 11/1998 Nick Roddick

  From the Reviews:
  • "Despite -- in spite of -- all the MacCabean pontification at the end of this monograph and even though one might have expected MacCabe to have made rather more of the countercultural and political developments in Britain at the end of the 1960s, this remains a very useful study which locates a rather neglected film in the interstices of a number of differing, overlapping, popular cultural contexts." - E.J.M.Duggan, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Performance is a notorious film. Filmed in 1968 (though not released until 1970), it was a too true to life glimpse at the London underworld of the late 1960s (the era of the Krays), as well as a graphic examination of the drugged, sexually liberated side of life en vogue at the time. It starred Mick Jagger as a washed-up rock star and James Fox as a brutal criminal. It was co-directed by Donald Cammell (who wrote the screenplay) and Nicolas Roeg (who was also director of photography). Jack Nitzsche wrote most of the music, Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, and Jagger, among others, performed the songs.
       Colin MacCabe's book -- a volume in the estimable British Film Institute Film Classics series -- tells the story of the making and release of the film, offering plenty of background and interpretation, and clearing up many of the mysteries and much of the gossip surrounding the film (including the stories around the shoot that, so Mick Jagger, "are so good I can't possibly deny them"). And there is a lot to tell (and to clear up).
       Financed by Warner Brothers, it was supposed to be a star vehicle for Mick Jagger. In the first (and Jagger-less) half of the film the focus is, however, on a brutal criminal figure, Chas Devlin (played by James Fox). His boss is less than pleased when Chas disobeys an order, and suddenly Chas finds himself first brutally attacked and then on the run. Seizing an opportunity, Chas rents a room in the house of washed-up rock star Turner (played by Mick Jagger) and love-interests Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton), leading to the very different second half of the film -- sexual, sensual, Borgesian. It changes Chas' life -- so much so that he fails to make good his escape abroad, leading to a showdown at Turner's house, a brilliant, confusing final turn.
       In the first half, especially, there is a good deal of violence, gritty East End brutality the likes of which had never been seen on the screen before. In the second half there is sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. It's an odd mix. Jagger is only half successful as Turner (a role clearly based on Brian Jones), and the women are also a bit simplistically portrayed (and written) -- though Pallenberg gamely plays seductive Pherber. But James Fox is very good as Chas, his unlikely transformation quite convincingly pulled off.
       Much of the gangster half of the movie is excellent, though very stark and brutal. Then the movie goes peculiar: Borges, mirrors, sexual awakenings, and drugs put a spin on things that is dizzying. Nicolas Roeg -- an accomplished cinematographer who would go on to direct a few truly great films -- helped make it a visually striking film. Tightly edited (more so than Roeg and Cammell wanted), there are a number of exceptional scenes -- including the famous smashed image of Borges.
       MacCabe clears up many of the scenes -- what they were intended to be and why they became what they became. Warner Brothers' less than enthusiastic reaction (once the execs actually stayed awake to watch the daily rushes and realized what the film was turning into) didn't help, and it took two years until the film was finally released. MacCabe recounts much of the interesting behind-the-scenes material, from the casting to the role of David Litvinoff to how James Fox immersed himself in his role (and reminding us that Fox abandoned his career afterwards, turning to Christianity instead). Other titbits: Marlon Brando was originally offered the role of the criminal, but declined, Tuesday Weld was supposed to play Pherber but broke her shoulder -- and Mia Farrow was up for the part of Lucy but broke her ankle.
       MacCabe makes a convincing case for Performance as a seminal 1960s movie, particularly in its portrayal of class and crime. It "gathers up these themes -- aesthetic, political, philosophical and sexual -- which still dominate our intellectual and emotional lives."
       MacCabe considers it "the greatest British film ever made". He does not fully convince with his exposition, but he certainly helps the reader understand a complex, vibrant, challenging movie.
       American reaction to the film was not muted: in the first paragraph of his book MacCabe quotes the devastating criticisms of Time's Richard Schickel ("the most disgusting, the most completely worthless film I have seen since I began reviewing") and The New York Times' John Simon ("indescribably sleazy, self-indulgent and meretricious"). Released in the dead of August (and apparently rated X) it didn't last long in the States. In Britain, however, "the reviews were excellent and the box-office good".
       MacCabe acknowledges that the place of Performance in film history has not yet been determined: it is uncertain whether it "will have the strength of a genuine classic and produce the scholars it requires or whether it will remain as a historical footnote". MacCabe's contribution is a relatively small one, but it does help open the door to the many issues raised by this easily overwhelming film. Nicely organized and well-presented, MacCabe's book is a useful complement to the film and can certainly be recommended to anyone interested in the movie. And it is a film deserving your interest.

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  • BFI publicity page
Performance - the movie:
  • IMDb page
  • Review in The Village Voice (scroll down for review)
Donald Cammell: Nicolas Roeg: Colin MacCabe: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the Index of books on Film under review
  • Jorge Luis Borges' Collected Fictions, for example -- as he is such an influence on Performance
  • The works of Iain Sinclair, fascinated by the London that is found in Performance

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About the Author:

       Colin MacCabe is Head of Research at the British Film Institute, and teaches at the University of Exeter and the University of Pittsburgh.

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© 2001-2021 the complete review

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