That Spanish-speaking gentleman, the one we all call Kurt

Content warning:  Male nudity, general weirdness, and much more if you dig into the movie, or Jack Nitzsche's life story.

Performance (1970), directed by Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell, is one of the most notorious and influential movies of the last half of the 20th century.  It's notorious for its violence, perverse sexuality, psychedelic drug use, and its disorienting and surreal visual storytelling.  It's influential because all of this stuff worked.  The modern British gangster film, from The Long Good Friday (1980) to Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Sexy Beast (2000), owes its very existence to Performance.

It's a startling movie.  James Fox plays Chas, a bagman and enforcer for a London mobster, a man who takes so much perverse delight in his job that his bosses decide he's more of a liability than an asset.  (He pauses, while pouring a huge ceramic jug full of sulfuric acid over an enemy's Rolls-Royce, to regard the terrified driver, whom he has tied up and shaved bald with a straight razor.  He looks in the jug, says something like, "Not enough.  Pity," and goes back to ruining the car.)  

Chas eludes the men sent to kill him, in what is still one of the most shocking and disturbingly violent scenes I've ever seen in a movie.  He then goes underground, dyeing his hair and changing his identity, and goes to hide out in the house of a burned-out, once-famous rock musician he has read about.  

Mick Jagger plays Turner, that musician, who is if anything even more of a psychopath.  The two end up circling each other in a game of cat-and-mouse that becomes increasingly weird and sexualized as the psilocybin and Aleister Crowley enter the picture.

This movie was deeply hated when it was first released, and it almost didn't get released - Warner Brothers hated the movie so much that they let it sit on the shelf for 18 months when it was finished.  John Simon, in The New York Times, said, "You do not have to be a drug addict, pederast, sadomasochist, or nitwit to enjoy Performance, but being one or more of those things would help."  (John Simon himself died a week or two ago, a phenomenally influential critic who also hated women, gay men, art, and fun.)  People walked out.  

You know who didn't walk out?  Martin Scorcese.

Roeg, who died last year, made some of the most visually striking movies I've ever seen.  He made Walkabout, Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and Bad Timing.  There's a montage in Bad Timing (which is a very poor movie in many ways) that was the most dynamic use of music in a movie that I'd ever seen until Goodfellas came along.  (And that even though it was using the Who's not-very-good "Who Are You" to accompany the intrigues of the movie's not-very-good lead, Art Garfunkel.) 

The soundtrack for Performance is remarkable.  The score, by Jack Nitzsche (and boy, is he a piece of work), is stark and mostly electric, made up of low hums and harsh stabs.  (The Chas-beats-the-gangsters scene is made even more upsetting by the uncompromisingly unpleasant music.)  It also has a great collection of songs by Buffy Sainte-Marie, a very pre-Toy Story Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, and Merry Clayton.  There's a rap-before-rap-existed song by The Last Poets.  And there's this song, "Memo From Turner."

This is a Jagger/Richards song recorded by Jagger, Ry Cooder, and uncredited studio musicians.  It's one of the best Rolling Stones songs that the Rolling Stones never recorded.  Even by the standards of Mick Jagger, there's something deeply unsavory about it.  The sequence it backs in the film makes no narrative sense - at no point in the movie does Turner have any interaction with the gangster leader Harry Flowers and his men, and yet here they all are in Flowers's office.

What this scene really is, to be honest, is a music video.  It's from a time before music videos existed (except, maybe, the film D.A. Pennebaker made of Dylan singing "Subterranean Homesick Blues"), and yet, you'll have no trouble parsing it as one.

That this video of it has Dutch subtitles is lagniappe.  Not weird enough for you?  Here's a little more weird on the side, just for you.


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