ROME FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! It should come as no surprise that with fame comes compromise. Writer-director Shira Piven’s feature film, The Performance, examines just how far one hungry performer will go to have an audience.
The Performance is set in 1937 and follows Harold May (Jeremy Piven), an accomplished American tap dancer. This means he’s a struggling artist without a penny to his name. With each show comes a booker looking for any excuse to short-change this artist and his troupe. Yet, as they say, the show must go on. In need of a change of scenery, Harold and company go on a European tour through the Balkans, where the club owners are just as stingy as the Americans.
Yet, Harold has found a fan in Herr Fugler (Robert Carlyle). Fugler finds American tap dancing exhilarating and immediately makes the dancer an offer he can’t refuse. Harold is offered an all-expense paid trip to Berlin to perform in the affluent Kick Club for a packed audience. Fugler had Harold at “packed audience.” Upon his arrival, the troupe is given access to the finest hotels, meals, and a chance to perform on the grand stage with a live band. Unfortunately, the band doesn’t know any of the popular songs from Jewish composers like Irving Berlin.
On the night of the big performances, the club is shut down, causing panic among Harold and the dance troupe. Not to worry, but the club was shut down to make way for an important VIP guest, Adolf Hitler. With Harold being Jewish, does he go on for the sake of an audience and art?
“…the club was shut down to make way for an important VIP guest, Adolf Hitler. With Harold being Jewish, does he go on…”
There is quite a lot to unpack in The Performance, as everything I described is only the first act. Based on a short story by Arthur Miller of the same name and adapted by Shira Piven and co-writer Josh Salzberg, the drama asks a lot of questions and chooses only to answer some of them. The important question asked here is, “What would you do?” Then, it asks a slew of other questions to get us to that answer. Is there a separation between art and politics? Fugler says yes and goes a step further by saying art “unifies.” Does it matter who your audience is as long as you have an audience? How deep do you bury who you are as a person? Knowing the answer could spell trouble or, worse, threaten your access to the stage.
Jeremy Piven is at the center of everything here. First, who knew he could dance? His tap dancing is quite impeccable, and he looks like a professional dancer. It doesn’t look like Piven just learned to tap for this movie, where all eyes are on his feet. Aside from the tap, Piven gives a powerful, poignant, and emotional performance. The actor places all the conflict in his face and body language, and it just simmers until the end.
As a director, Shira Piven masterfully drops us into the 1930s by mixing her principal photography with archival footage. I wouldn’t say it is seamless, but her use of this footage as segues is downright artistic. Her handheld camera keeps the action in motion and us, the audience, consistently off-balance. It’s a beautiful and gritty tale, especially considering its modest budget.
The Performance leans into diving deep into the complicated nature of humans to always think of themselves first before the greater good. Where I found myself most engaged with the story is Harold May’s struggle, the inner conflict that ultimately defines who he is as a person.
The Performance premieres at the 2023 Rome Film Festival.
"…Piven gives a powerful, poignant, and emotional performance."