Last night, my sister and I went to the Alamo Drafthouse in San Antonio to see Todd Haynes' paean to glam rock, Velvet Goldmine (1998), as part of its "Turn it Up to 11" series. It was fun to see it on the big screen again. I was surprised that there were only about a dozen people in the audience. Well, two of them showed up in glam drag at least.
Velvet Goldmine is the story of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an ambitious young musician who wants more than just stardom — he wants to change the world. Along the way, he meets and marries adoring Mandy (Toni Collette), but is knocked for a loop by the uninhibited Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). An intense love affair and creative collaboration ensues, but it's doomed from the start. And when Brian kills off his Maxwell Demon stage persona in a publicity stunt, earning the enmity of both his fans and associates, he decides to disappear altogether.
Ten years later, in 1984, Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a journalist with a glam rock past of his own, is assigned by an American tabloid to find out whatever happened to Slade. In more than just a nod to Citizen Kane, he sets off to interview those who circled in Slade's orbit, including Mandy, Curt and former manager Cecil (Michael Feast).
Cecil is wheelchair-bound, just like Joseph Cotten in Kane, and Mandy is found drowning her sorrows, Susan Alexander-style, in a dimly-lit dive bar. Their recollections spark flashbacks replete with visually sumptuous musical numbers, and we are taken along on a glitter-infused odyssey to try to understand the enigma that is Brian Slade.
A bomb upon its initial release, Goldmine is remembered more fondly by audiences than by most critics, who declared it visually interesting but deficient story-wise. I don't agree — I find it easy to follow, and the way Haynes constructs scenes from Brian's life builds an increasing feeling of melancholy, of yearning for an era that was far too short and was gone much too soon.
With his hypnotic blue eyes, Meyers makes for an otherworldly Slade. Even though his self-serving agenda is simple to spot even from space, it's also easy to see why Mandy and Curt fall for him.
Maxwell Demon is based on David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, right down to the killing off his character. And even though the film shares its title with a Bowie song, the depiction of Slade as being a vapid opportunist evidently so displeased the glam legend that he refused to allow any of his songs to be used on the soundtrack.
McGregor's Curt is an amalgam of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, two of Bowie's close associates back in the day, although his blond locks make him look a lot like Kurt Cobain. Collette brings humanity to Mandy, Brian's social-climbing wife, who obviously worships the ground he walks on. Both have a good onscreen rapport with Meyers, which is essential.
Bale is a mournful Arthur, and he's got good reason. As Brian's star ascends, Arthur lives in a gloomy suburb and must content himself with fantasizing over the singer's image while concealing his real self from his strict, disapproving parents. He manages to snatch a few fleeting moments of freedom in the glam scene before it all implodes, but when we meet him again in the '80s, his light has clearly gone out. Arthur is truly the broken heart of the film.
The score is great, with Radiohead's Thom Yorke standing in for Brian Ferry on a couple of numbers. The new tunes blend seamlessly with the originals by T. Rex, Roxy Music and Lou Reed. Rhys Meyers does quite a respectable job on his songs, including Eno's "Baby's On Fire," and McGregor gets the opportunity to get his kit off for Pop's "T.V. Eye". Gee, it doesn't seem that long ago that you'd go to see one of his films prepared for the inevitable full-frontal nudity (Trainspotting, The Pillow Book, Young Adam). That rascal. Here's the clip for your NSFW amusement.
Haynes stages the musical numbers with flair, strangely earning the wrath of some reviewers who thought that they were derivative. A cranky Roger Ebert complained that there were too many nods to films like A Hard Day's Night and A Clockwork Orange, which puzzles me. What better way to establish a milieu than by evoking images from such iconic cultural artifacts as these?
The Blu-Ray is available at Amazon.