With more than 50 cooler-than-thou films to choose from, the American Cinematheque’s seventh-annual “Mods and Rockers” festival is a veritable retro smorgasbord — and many of the selections in the series’ first week are still fresh, despite being packaged several decades ago. Take Nicolas Roeg’s bent debut film Performance (1970): What initially seems a simple indulgence in swinging-England kink, with reclusive, faux-aristocratic pop star Mick Jagger offering to share his palatial hideaway and personal harem with on-the-lam cockney gangster James Fox, mutates — at first subliminally and then super vividly — into a skin-crawly exercise in mind-and-body snatching. Roeg and his codirector, Donald Cammell, construct a decadent lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-faded backdrop for the express purpose of tearing it down, and though the film’s psychedelic surfaces may have dated, its dual undertows of class anxiety and identity crisis remain potent.
Jagger isn’t quite playing himself in Performance, but his satanic majesty charges the film’s hedonistic atmosphere. It’s a quality that’s lacking in Michael Apted’s bleak 1974 backstage drama Stardust, the rise-and-fall saga of a vulnerable rocker (played by Broadway performer David Essex). The character’s nervous breakdown in the face of the twin bitch goddesses Fame and Fortune is more Behind the Music than That Thing You Do!, but Essex doesn’t quite sell the drama; his agony is muted behind his doe eyes and cutely tousled countenance. Luckily, nothing else in the film is quiet: Stardust nails its arena-rock textures, andbuilds to a spectacularly pretentious production number that wouldn’t be out of place in Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975), which turns up on July 21 at the Aero as part of the Cinematheque’s “Can’t Stop the Musicals” series.
For more pleasurable guilty pleasures, try the double bill of Barbarella (1968) and Danger: Diabolik (1967). The former is a strenuously campy outer-space comic strip with Jane Fonda in full sex-kitten mode as a scantily clad secret agent on the trail of a mad scientist named Duran Duran (yes, that’s where that name came from); the latter is a forceful splash of pop art (directed by giallo genius Mario Bava) that posits its casually murderous jewel-thief protagonist (John Phillip Law, who also stars in Barbarella) as a hero, just because he’s appreciably cooler than the idiot authority figures lumbering several steps behind him. (American Cinematheque at the Aero and Egyptian theaters; through August 31. www.americancinematheque.com)