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William C. Altreuter
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Sunday, December 14, 2008


Rounding out my "Exile on Main Street" research I watched "Performance" last night-- the first time I've seen it. It's an interesting document, and a lot better done than I'd expected. Very 60's, but I don't mean to be reductive or dismissive by saying that-- it has the fingerprints of the French New Wave on it, and the fashions are Mod England, but these things still seem fresh. It's funny to think that Mick Jagger was probably the most conservative principal involved in the making of the film. Or maybe what I mean is that ol' bums rush Jagger became the most conservative person-- a Peer of the Realm and all. Consider, though, that the (terrific) soundtrack was the work of Jack Nitzsche, as dangerously crazy a figure as rock'n'roll has produced. It was co-directed by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, an audacious creator in the world of film who planted his flag in the ground with this movie. Cammell likewise is a facinating figure, who fell in, at more or less consecutive points in his career, with the French New Wave and with the London criminal set.

"Performance" is where "Memo from Turner" comes from-- the greatest Stones song that isn't a Stones song (there is a version of it on "Metamorphosis", but it doesn't touch the original); the performance that suggested that there was a context outside of the Stones where Mick could function. Rock stars frequently want to be movie stars it seems to me, but the skill sets don't match up particularly well, and the crossover is pretty rare. There is a case to be made for Elvis-- he had a career, even if the movies weren't much. In an earlier, pre-rock star time there was Bing, and Sinatra, of course. Of the Beatles only Ringo really made a run at acting, and he's pretty good. David Bowie has worked at it, and is probably as good at it as he is because he came at rock'n'roll as an actor first, musician second. I think one could come away from "Performance" underrating the acting job Jagger does, thinking, "Well, he's really just playing a version of himself." That assessment is probably unfair. Jagger has said that he had his late colleague Brian Jones in mind, and while to anyone other than a Stones fan the difference might seem trivial, to Jagger it was certainly significant. Looking past the screen, the distinction matters because he was playing opposite Anita Pallenberg-- formerly Jones' lover, and Keith Richards' lover at the time. Jagger is a genuine presence here, with all of the androgyny and energy that made him irresistible, and the touch of Robert Johnson that makes him authentic too.

In some ways "Performance" seems like two movies-- once it gets rolling the first part is a violent English gangster story, then, when the character played by James Fox is obliged to go to ground he hides out in the London mansion of a reclusive rock star. Sex and drugs ensue, and it gets very metaphysical. I think it holds together better than that, and I think that it's a tribute to the editing job that this is so-- it could just as easily been a mess. The DVD has not been available until pretty recently, and it looks like a decent effort has been made to clean up the print-- someday someone will pay for the shoddy way the artifacts from this time were preserved. Worthwhile, even if nobody else in my house could stand to be in the room with it.

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