Todd Haynes' dazzlingly surreal "Velvet Goldmine" offers a celestial "Here's
looking at you, kid'' to the heyday of British glitter rock in general and to
the David Bowie of the early 1970s in particular. Without addressing Bowie
directly, it appropriates his shimmering, protean aura in virtuoso ways that put
ordinary period filmmaking or time-capsule musicology to shame.
The astounding Haynes, whose last film ("Safe") took place on an entirely
different planet from this one, brilliantly re-imagines the glam-rock '70s as a
brave new world of electrifying theatricality and sexual possibility, to the
point where identifying precise figures in this neo-psychedelic landscape is
almost beside the point. "Velvet Goldmine" tells a story the way operas do:
blazing with exquisite yet abstract passions, and with quite a lot to look at on
Structured as a rock "Citizen Kane" with an extraterrestrial Rosebud, "Velvet
Goldmine" traces its tendrils back to Oscar Wilde, whom it imagines as a
schoolboy. ("I want to be a pop idol," this child sweetly announces.) A century
later, the Wildean spirit of flamboyance is spectacularly reborn, ready to erupt
into the glittery, pansexual pop utopia over which Bowie so dramatically
The film doesn't force its musical references on audiences, but it evokes
them with vast fondness and fascination. "People have certain memories that they
hold very dear, so you want to remain true to them," Christine Vachon, the
film's audacious producer, has explained.
Out of the wild Ken Russellish phantasmagoria of "Velvet Goldmine" several
essential characters emerge, central among them the Bowiesque Brian Slade.
Played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a stunningly pretty, insolent, snake-hipped
presence, he embodies the provocative and mysterious heart of the film. Haynes,
cerebral as ever despite this film's explosion of visual sensuality, surrounds
Slade with implicit questions about art and inspiration, truth and honesty,
passion and repression.
Playing what he has rightly called "a birthday present of a part," Ewan
McGregor makes a fabulously charismatic rock star named Curt Wild, who is both
reproach and object of fascination for Brian Slade. Whatever else he may be,
McGregor's often hilariously decadent Curt Wild is the real thing. With
typically wicked wit, the film mentions that Curt underwent early shock
treatments "to fry the fairy clean out of him" and that the net effect of this
was "to make him bonkers every time he heard an electric guitar."
In a film that has at least one more major character than it needs, and that
like "Safe" overworks its elusiveness in ways sure to confound some audiences,
Christian Bale plays the journalist a la "Kane" who investigates Brian Slade
from the chilly distance of 1984. That period is rendered no less fancifully
than the film's rainbow days, as Bale's doleful Arthur Stuart reaches out from
his dreary present to a past that both entices and humiliates him. Arthur, the
fan who is forever linked to Curt Wild, conveys all the wistful distance of what
it means to see the events here from the outside, looking in.
VELVET GOLDMINE SITE