“Wham, bam, thank you ma’am,” goes the famous lyric in David Bowie’s “Suffragette City.” If only Todd Haynes, director of the glam rock epic Velvet Goldmine, had listened more closely.
Velvet Goldmine is a wildly ambitious two-hour encapsulation of the glam rock scene that took England by storm in the early 1970s. It’s fiction heavily inspired by fact, to say the least: the movie virtually dares the viewer to extricate the paths of its characters from the true stories of England’s real glam heroes. It opens with the on-stage assassination of androgynous superstar Brian Slade, announces not all that unexpectedly that the shooting was a hoax, and fast forwards to New York City, 1984, when a print journalist is assigned the task of tracking Slade down to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the elaborate hoax.
Flashbacks galore ensue: the writer himself, of course, was a player in the glam scene, so we get to see his own recollections intersect with those of the characters he tracks down in search of Slade. They tell the story of Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers of The Governess), a young mod who goes glam for good when he catches garage rock icon Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) and his band the Rats in a scalding concert performance. By playing his mod fashion obsession off of Wild’s magnetic energy, Slade, or more appropriately, alter ego Maxwell Demon, emerges as a major UK star. When he finally makes a dent stateside, Slade takes advantage of the opportunity to meet Wild; the two strike up a relationship, first professional, then sexual.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Slade is, right down to the mod origins, a ringer for David Bowie (Maxwell Demon = Ziggy Stardust), Wild an especially deliberate replica of Iggy Pop (the Rats = the Stooges), and this much of the plot largely reprises rumors of their real-life encounters. The film really begins to break from reality when Wild and Slade split up while recording Wild’s comeback effort (Bowie produced a couple of Iggy Pop albums in the ’70s) and the film extrapolates new paths for its two main characters: Slade’s descent into pathetic junkiedom and his subsequent bizarre rebirth, Wild’s descent into anonymity.
In the meantime, the heart of Velvet Goldmine is reflected in the flashbacks of journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale). While Slade’s cries of “sexual revolution” might seem stale or banal by today’s standards, the movie provides an essential context by depicting Stuart’s gradual homosexual awakening.
The actors are uniformly strong. Rhys-Meyers has a perfect face for glam and he holds up well as the clearly troubled but tough to reach center of the film. McGregor expertly counterbalances Wild’s forceful dynamism with his wounded pathos. Bale is an empathetic, pensive Stuart. Elsewhere, Toni Collette is fine as Slade’s American ex-wife and Eddie Izzard is characteristically scene-stealing as Slade’s manager, Jerry Devine.
And Haynes, who proved his directorial mettle with the much lauded indie flick Safe, is clearly a director of impressive skill and vision. His often hallucinogenic cinematography makes impressive use of light and color, and his cutting of the film reflects careful and complicated thought.
To say that there’s a lot going on in Velvet Goldmine is to understate the case greatly: this is as dense a film as the cinema saw in 1998. Not only does it quote Roxy Music and David Bowie, but it references Citizen Kane, Oscar Wilde, Dante’s Inferno and Nietzsche. All the attention to detail proves exciting at times: the score is replete with glam rock classics (best of all: Brian Eno’s “The Fat Lady of Limbourg”), and the characters’ names often point in certain directions. The costuming and set design are as accurate as they are marvelous to look at, and McGregor’s recreation of Iggy Pop’s unparalleled masochistic live act is studied yet spontaneous.
But the density that creates the more than occasional nice touch is ultimately the film’s undoing. By splicing long music video segments into his film and reveling in the sex and drugs that go along with rock ’n roll, Haynes makes clear his intention” to create a glam movie. It’s a clever idea, but one that cripples the director.
The glam scene was, until punk came along, the quintessential big tent, a world which gender, race and sexual proclivity were bases not for ostracism but celebration, a world in which anyone and everyone could spout off grandiose mythologies and philosophies without risk of pretension. By bringing his characters into the present and forcing them to recall their glam years, Haynes is looking to reenact the process of mythologizing all over again. Unfortunately, the best he can do is make his post-glam characters recite stale catechisms like “we wanted to change the world, but wound up changing ourselves.” Given the power of the scene’s effect on young Arthur Stuart, it deserves better in the post-op.
This is a recurring problem throughout the film. Glam obsessed over stereotypes and cliches so that it could turn them into essential modes of expression by extending them past logical extremes (witness the popularity of the glam concept album or, more recently, neo-glam rocker Brett Anderson of Suede claiming “I consider myself a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience). Velvet Goldmine, on the other hand, never extends its cliches to extremity; it simply lets them sit around idly. Glitter falling from the heavens, for example, represents all sorts of glam things to Haynes; to me it just represents Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.
The movie spends far too much time trying to wrap glam up in a philosophical package eventually wears thin. Slade’s reincarnation (it’s a surprise of sorts, so I won’t give it away) is a stretch, and not an adequately fleshed-out one at that; Stuart’s reunion with Wild should be crucial, but it feels tacked on. The result is a touchingly well-meaning but unsatisfactory reverie for a scene and an era that was more complex than the film lets on. In the final analysis, Velvet Goldmine spends too much time on strategy and science, not enough on, to borrow a Stooges’ title, raw power.