Los Angeles Times review:Goodbye, Art Films; Hello, 'Goldmine'

Kenneth Turan


CANNES, France--It happened when he was 8, a boy in Encino, but Todd Haynes, sitting on a hotel rooftop as the "dizzying experience" of the Cannes Film Festival unfolds below him, still can feel its power.

"I went to see '2001' with my dad and it was like we took a drug trip together," the writer-director remembers. "It was like 'We're going somewhere, we don't know where, but the more mysterious the better.' I wanted to make a movie like that, that fuels the imagination with ideas. Where you have to trust the film, to let it take you somewhere. It won't happen for some people, but there are a lot of others who are ready to be surprised and confused and seduced."

So it will be with "Velvet Goldmine," Haynes' in-competition feature. Starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and the protean Ewan McGregor as the bisexual icons of London's 1970s glam rock scene, this visually intoxicating, cryptic film plays the kind of ambitious games with structure that have become the hallmark of Haynes' work. "All my films are experiments to me," he explains. "I try and do something I've never done before, something that may not work."

Haynes' films are also controversial. "Poison" won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1991 but infuriated the American Family Assn. and led to a fierce debate about its partial NEA funding. Earlier, his inventive "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," told entirely with Barbie and Ken dolls, was banned from distribution. All his films, including the critically acclaimed "Safe," starring Julianne Moore, have been strictly, the director says, "art films with a capital A." Until now.

Because of its nearly two dozen songs, constant visual flourishes and a high-octane subject matter that evokes the salad days of David Bowie, Elton John and Iggy Pop, "Velvet Goldmine," says Haynes, "is the first film I've made that's sort of sneaky enough to draw in a wider audience." (Miramax will distribute the film in the fall.)

With a title taken from an obscure Bowie song ("it's richly evocative of the color and texture of the moment"), "Goldmine" consciously borrows its structure of a years-later journalistic investigation into the life of glam icon Brian Slade (Rhys Meyers) from "Citizen Kane." "That's the best example," the director says, "of telling the story of a famous, powerful subject who's missing, whose story is compelling because you never get to the center."

Haynes, whose fingernails are an appropriate shade of silver, was attracted to glam rock as a subject because he loved the music; knowledge of the context came later. "It was a pointed affront to what was becoming a hippie complacency," he says. "It was no accident both the women's and the gay liberation movements emerged in the '70s: It was the revolution turned inward and becoming about identity and examination of self. Its sexual element was androgynous, which was so much more of a challenge because it implicates everyone. It's a blurring of boundaries, not the laying down of definite lines that came in the '80s."

Given that he sees the decade as "the last truly progressive period, culturally, politically, aesthetically, in music and film," Haynes is not surprisingly "bugged about the very silly, dismissive nature of '70s revivalism. 'The Brady Bunch,' bubble gum music, disco, it's all overlooking stuff we should be learning from today."

Always encouraged by his parents, who are here for the film's opening night and whom the director calls "beyond supportive," Haynes' zeal for movies began very young. "The first one I saw was 'Mary Poppins' when I was 3, and every time I would see a film I would become obsessed," he recalls. "I'd draw thousands of pictures, perform it in school, do it for my parents at night. Film had an impact on me like nothing else."

Haynes' "first serious production" was a Super-8 film inspired by Franco Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet." "I played all the roles except Juliet," he says. "When there was a sword fight, I shot myself first as Romeo and then cut away to me as Tybalt." He was 9 years old.

Now a youthful-looking 37-year-old who rolls his own cigarettes in dark brown papers, Haynes is wary of getting too well-known. He has no agent and his immediate plans center on his personal life, not a film. "I'm from L.A.," he says, "and I know that when people throw big money at you, it's not free. I know what's behind the glamour."