Usually thought of as Nicolas Roeg's first film as a director, Performance (1970) is actually co-credited to Donald Cammell, with Roeg also credited as Director of Photography. Many of the film's flourishes, which now seem characteristic of Roeg, were probably Cammell's. Inspired by real-life East End violence, and by the writing of Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov, this was a genuinely collaborative effort, despite Cammell's subsequent career decline and Roeg's cult success.
Performance tells a simple story in complex terms. The opening half-hour is a comparatively realistic tour of the London underworld of the late 1960s, but once gangster Chas (James Fox) enters the house of reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger), the film becomes concerned with the disintegration of his perceptions about himself and his world, after which the film becomes a jumble of jump-cuts, point-of-view shifts, visual effects, elliptical editing and seamless changes between fantasy and reality.
The identities of the two men become blurred, with the frequent use of mirrors indicating how they become reflections of one another. In Turner, Chas sees his own desire for acceptance and adulation. In Chas, Turner sees his own demon, the violence needed to restore his powers of creation. When he sings the song Memo From T, Turner brings the two worlds together, the society of violence and the cult of rock music. The two personalities begin to merge, and they even become physically similar: when Chas wears an androgynous curly wig, he resembles a tour poster illustration of Turner.
James Fox's excellent performance captures Chas's increasing alienation from his world, as well as his sadistic streak. The script offers him, and a fine supporting cast of thugs, the opportunity for plenty of black humour. But the film is also notable for capturing the sheer energetic audacity of Mick Jagger's persona. Constantly performing for his audience, just as self-consciously as Chas, Jagger's Turner is an edgy character, who eventually drops the isolated flower-child act in the song sequence, when he displays the insolent aggression which was Jagger's trademark.
The explicit sex and brutal violence were a breakthrough for British cinema, explicitly linked in Chas's taste for rough sex and his oddly sexualised whipping at the hand of Maddocks (Anthony Valentine). These elements, and the frequent drug-taking, seem to have caused Warner Bros to panic about the film, shelving it for two years and then re-editing it before its 1970 release.
*This film is the subject of a BFI Film Classics book by Colin MacCabe.