Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Todd Haynes and James Lyons.
Starring: Ewan McGregor (Curt Wild), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Brian Slade), Christian Bale (Arthur Stuart), Toni Collette (Mandy Slade), Eddie Izzard (Jerry Devine), Emily Woof (Shannon), Michael Feast (Cecil).
Todd Haynes is a director whose film often reach Kubrick-ian levels of control and perfectionism. If anything, over the course of his career, he has been accused (wrongly in my view) of being too cold and detached – valuing the beautiful surface of his movies more than anything else. If there is one film in his filmography where no one could accuse Haynes of that, it would have to be Velvet Goldmine – which is a beautiful mess of a film. The film doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, sure, and it seems to spiral off in dozens of directions at once, never really settling on one for very long. The calm, authorial control that marks most of Haynes film seems completely lost in this time hoping, study of glam rock. The film is never boring – although whether it’s very good or not is very much open to debate.
The film is about Glam Rock icon Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who creates an alter ego for himself – calling himself Maxwell Demon – and becoming an icon for gay teens the world over. But as Slade gets bored of being Maxwell Demon, he stages a splashy, onstage murder of that alter-ego – resulting in a scandal that pretty much kills his career and he disappears from view. 10 years later, in 1984, one of those gay teens who idolized Slade, Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is a journalist who is assigned to try and track down what ever happened to Slade. His journey follows the structure of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane – including many shots that deliberately echo the “greatest movie of all time” – just to show you how much ambition Haynes really has here. As Stuart interviews those who knew Slade – his overly ambitious wife Mandy (Toni Collette), an old manager who was among the first Slade abandoned, and eventually another rock star – an American named Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), who professional and personal connection with Slade rose and fell dramatically.
It is obvious who the film is inspired by – with Brian Slade being a stand-in for David Bowie, and Curt Wild an amalgamation of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed (with perhaps a little Kurt Cobain thrown in for good measure). But you probably shouldn’t read too much into the real life comparisons – as I think Haynes is using it as mainly a jumping off point more than anything else. Surely, David Bowie is more talented than Slade ever was, and not nearly as shallow or superficial (watching it just a few weeks after Bowie’s death, the film really does feel like a kind of fuck you to Bowie, which stings a little bit). Not that Velvet Goldmine is all that kind to any of its characters – but at least the Curt Wild character is presented as an original stage presence and musician, whereas Slade is seen as someone who goes whichever way the wind is blowing at the that time – grasping onto whatever is popular and then stealing from those who got there first. Rhys Meters basically portrays Slade as a pouty, spoiled brat destroying those he comes in contact with. McGregor is clearly having fun playing the out of control Curt Wild – especially on stage when he screams and strips and antagonizes the audience. For much of the movie though, Curt is seen as not quite a full character – this could well be because of the differing points of view the film adopts – that do not include his until the end, but it hurts his character a little bit. Christian Bale doesn’t fare much better – you may get to see his face, unlike the reporter in Kane – but other than establishing that he is gay – and apparently at every major concert and incident in the film as an observer – there’s not a whole lot else to play. The best performance is by Toni Collette as Mandy Slade – the hanger on wife, who hangs on even after he’s disappeared for years. Collette rips into the role in the flashback scenes, and seems just beaten down in those 1984 scenes.
All of this may sound like I disliked Velvet Goldmine – and I really didn’t, I just don’t love it either. The film is visual feast – starting with Sandy Powell’s brilliant, over-the-top costumes, and extending to the excellent production design and cinematography. Haynes also used music – of course – to great effect (even if Bowie wouldn’t let any of his music be used), he re-creates other songs for the era in a brilliant way. The film sexual frankness is rather refreshing – evoking the unabashed freedom of a time before AIDS when things would come crashing down. Brian Slade may ultimately only be a petulant child, and then a sellout, but what he meant to people like Arthur was real.
Haynes’ approach in Velvet Goldmine is similar to what he would do – with far more success – in his Bob Dylan movie, I’m Not There (2007). That film looked a real life, enigmatic character, and kept that enigma intact, by presenting many different sides of Dylan – some real, some imagined. It doesn’t work as well in Velvet Goldmine, in part because no matter who is telling the story, Slade seems like an asshole, and in part because Haynes seems to lose the plot thread entirely at some points – chasing the film down various rabbit holes and asides, that are entertaining in their own right, but don’t quite add up to very much.
Velvet Goldmine has become a cult favorite, because of course it has. It does have a delirious effect that is hard to beat, and its enthusiasm is infectious. Ultimately though, the pleasures of the film are fleeting, vanishing as the end credits start to role.