Thursday, December 19, 2013

the glam that fell to earth: velvet goldmine

1998's Velvet Goldmine is more than just an attempt to capture Britain's (and marginally, America's) short-lived obsession with glam rock in the 1970s. It's a true aural-visual experience. There is dialogue, but not much of what the characters say is as affecting as how and what they're wearing while they say it.

Director Todd Haynes (Safe, Far From Heaven) has always had an eye for color, but the David Bowie-inspired Velvet Goldmine is a non-stop assault of jewel-toned and glittery beauty. The original idea for the project was a Bowie biopic, but Bowie didn't like the script and didn't allow any of his music to appear in the film. What may have first seemed a blow ended up being a boon to the project, as Haynes could take aspects of Bowies life and career, like his Ziggy Stardust character, and spin it off in his own direction. He not only had fun with his version of Ziggy, called Maxwell Demon, but also references Citizen Kane, and even channels an alien Oscar Wilde (many of the characters' dialogue is made up of Wilde quotes) to add to the benevolent excess.

Brian Slade, "Rock and Roll is a prostitute, it should be tarted up."

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Brian Slade (courtesy of Fan Pop)

Velvet Goldmine poses the question, a la Kane, of what happened to '70s superstar Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), after he hoaxed his death on stage — and his fans and critics abandoned him after the deception. A British reporter now living in America named Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is tasked with the assignment of uncovering the disappearance of Slade. Stuart is at first reluctant, as his own troubled youth and sexuality are closely tied to Slade and glam rock. Scenes from Slade's rise and fall are intercut with interviews between Stuart and Slade's ex-wife Mandy (Toni Colette), and his attempts to contact rock star Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), who was Slade's collaborator and for a time, lover. While Slade is clearly Bowie-esque, Wild's character has aspects of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and even Kurt Cobain.

Mandy, "What is true about music is true about life: that beauty reveals everything because it expresses nothing."

Toni Colette as Mandy Slade
Mr. & Mrs. Glam

The bisexual Slade seems to enchant everyone in his orbit. He seems to have genuine affection for his wife Mandy and lover Curt, but does he love them — can he love anyone? Fame seems to be the only thing that he truly desires or understands. He has as deep an impact on Curt, who truly loves him, as he does his young and naive fan Arthur, who only loves him from afar. As much as Velvet Goldmine may be considered a "gay" love story (and part coming-out film, from Arthur's point of view), what comes across most strongly while viewing the film is its romanticism. A very long kiss between Brian Slade and Curt Wild is heady and romantic, no matter what your orientation. Maybe, for just that moment, Slade is truly in love.

Curt Wild, "The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history."

Hello young lovers: Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) and Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers)

Rhys Meyers and McGregor do a lot of their own singing in the film, but they are also ably abetted by  such music luminaries as Thom Yorke, Thurston Moore, Andy Mackay, Ron Asheton, and many others. Classic glam rock hits are reinterpreted for the film, including T. Rex's "20th Century Boy," The Stooges' "T.V. Eye," and Lou Reed's "Satellite Of Love."

When the mystery of Slade's disappearance is finally revealed, it isn't exactly equivalent to a "Rosebud" moment. But I was still sorry to see the end of Velvet Goldmine. There aren't many movies that are so beautiful to watch, from scene to scene, even frame-to-frame. That are so unabashedly sad, and goofy, and exhilarating, and romantic. I'm still thinking about it, days later, and may have to watch it again soon.


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