New York Times News Service review

Stephen Holden


Anyone who watches "Velvet Goldmine," Todd Haynes' extravagant, silver-spangled, $7 million valentine to glam rock, is bound to wonder if the filmmaker was himself once a glitter-crazed teen-age rebel who hennaed his hair, experimented with cross-dressing and pranced around in six-inch platform shoes. The answer is no.

"Velvet Goldmine," which is set mostly in London in the early 1970s, follows the rise, fall and mysterious disappearance of Brian Slade, a David Bowie-like superstar whose stage alter-ego, Maxwell Demon, bears striking similarities to Bowie's most notorious invention, that flame-haired, extraterrestrial androgyne Ziggy Stardust. The movie also observes Brian's stormy, sexually charged relationships with two Americans: his flamboyantly theatrical wife Mandy (Toni Collette), who resembles Bowie's former wife Angela, and Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), a surly exhibitionistic rocker who suggests Iggy Pop crossed with Jim Morrison.

But for all the characters' resemblances to real people, "Velvet Goldmine," which opened Friday, doesn't pretend to be a cinematic roman a clef about the glam rock era. What Haynes has constructed is a surreal pop fantasia that includes 23 songs, some of them done as lavish production numbers whose opulence rivals the glitziest fantasies of Busby Berkeley. At these moments, "Velvet Goldmine" looks and feels almost like science fiction.

"There were so many movies that affected me," Haynes says in an interview, "but the ones that influenced this film the most came out of the drug culture - movies like "2001," "A Clockwork Orange" and "Performance."

"Velvet Goldmine" also tips its hat to "Citizen Kane." Brian's story is reconstructed through the eyes of Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a reporter who was once one of the star's most ardent fans. A decade has passed since Brian, at the height of his stardom, sabotaged his career by faking his own onstage assassination. Assigned to write a whatever-happened-to story about Brian (it is now 1984), Arthur embarks on a search that is as much an investigation into his own troubled youth as it is a "Citizen Kane"-like quest for the "Rosebud" in Brian's past.

Although it would be easy to assume that the reporter is a stand-in for Haynes, they share few, if any, similarities. Where Arthur comes from a brutal English working-class background, Haynes, 37, grew up in comfortable circumstances in the Los Angeles suburb of Encino.

Haynes was too young in 1972 (the year Bowie brought his Ziggy Stardust tour to the United States) to appreciate glam rock at its height. "I was only 11," the lean, wholesome-looking filmmaker recalls over a plate of calamari at the Bowery Bar in New York. "But I remember when suddenly there were these girls wearing lipstick and bright colored clothes and painting their nails. They had a tough, cool, blase attitude and talked about Ziggy and Iggy and bisexual this and bisexual that. It was so antithetical to the '60s ideology and style that at the time I found it a little off-putting."

It was as an undergraduate at Brown University, where he majored in art and semiotics in the early 1980s, that Haynes became fascinated with glam rock, the campy, dandified English style popularized not only by Bowie but by Marc Bolan, Roxy Music and Gary Glitter and adopted by American rockers like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, both of whom were briefly Bowie proteges. Two 1970s pop albums that were much admired in the artistic circles in which Haynes traveled while at college were "Here Come the Warm Jets" and "Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy," by the rock experimentalist Brian Eno, who had played synthesizer in Roxy Music. Eno had also produced three albums for Bowie in the late 1970s. Working his way back through these albums, Haynes developed a new appreciation for the glam music culture that had put him off a decade earlier.

"The more I researched, the more I discovered a clear intellectual lineage that went back to Oscar Wilde," he says. "What glam rock kept demonstrating was the same basic position against nature, played out in a popular context. I kept seeing recurrences in the ideas distinguishing the glam artists from the '60s rock stars who preceded them, and the ideas distinguishing Wilde from the romantics who had come before him. In both cases there was a playing with sexual orientation, an emphasis on the pose, and the notion of self-consciously constructing yourself as a star."

Superficially, "Velvet Goldmine" could not be more different in tone from Haynes' last film, "Safe," a cool, visually elegant portrait of a Southern California woman (played by Julianne Moore) who develops an environmental disease and flees to a sinister, pollution-free new-age commune in New Mexico. "Safe," in turn, seemed a radical departure from "Poison," the notorious 1991 film that won him the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and infuriated right-wing critics of the National Endowment for the Arts, which had provided $25,000 of the movie's $250,000 budget. "Poison" folded together three stories, including a horror film parody and a prison drama adapted from Jean Genet, into an elliptical parable about paranoia and social stigmatization in the age of AIDS.

That film, an art-house hit that earned $1 million, was a huge stylistic leap from Haynes' first film, "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story." In that 43-minute bio pic of the singer who died of anorexia, the characters are played by Barbie dolls. Because of its unauthorized use of the Carpenters' music, "Superstar" has not been allowed to be shown since 1990.

As different as they are from one another, however, all four of Haynes' feature films share an attitude that Haynes describes as "oppositional."

"I'm a political filmmaker, and the politics of identity is where I see the core of my focus," he explains. "We live in a society that insists on prescribing our identities. I think the glam era posed some of the strongest dangers to that by encouraging a refusal of any fixed category for sexual orientation or identity in general. Glam rock was invested in blurring the difference between masculinity and femininity, heterosexuality and homosexuality, and that's tough on society. All those lines were rigorously reinstated in the '80s."

For someone this dedicated to challenging the status quo, Haynes seems devoid of the hostility often associated with artistic rebels. The oldest of three children born to parents he describes as "doggedly liberal and incredibly loving and supportive," he is mild-mannered and boyishly enthusiastic. His father, a sales representative for a cosmetics company, recently helped Haynes' younger brother Shawn set up his own line, "The Velvet Goldmine Collection."

"Although I had a wonderful childhood, I still remember being angst-ridden all my life," he says. "I had friends and was popular, but I identified with people who were unhappy and often befriended the person who was the outcast. I felt terrorized by the notions of what a man is supposed to be in the world."

The realization that he was gay, he says, drove him to explore sexual politics. His study of feminism provided him with a theoretical perspective that has exerted a profound influence on work.

Haynes was only 9 when he made his first film, "Romeo and Juliet,"' (inspired by the Franco Zeffirelli film), in which he played all the parts, using double exposure. During his high school years, while a student at The Oakwood School, an arts-oriented private school in North Hollywood, he spent two years producing a 23-minute short called "The Suicide," about a sensitive boy struggling through high school. His main film project while at Brown was a 43-minute Godardian study of Rimbaud and Verlaine.

Each of his commercially released films, Haynes says, involved a different experiment. "In 'Superstar,' I wanted to tell a story with dolls and in the process make you forget you were watching dolls," he says. "'Poison' was an experiment in reading, in asking an audience to actively engage with different ways of telling almost the same story. 'Safe' was an experiment in restraint and in not giving an audience every answer as to how to read a character. It follows the exact line that a disease-of-the-week movie would follow. But when the character finds a therapeutic or spiritual answer, that answer is wrong. 'Velvet Goldmine's' experiment is in its excess and stylization and its attempt to keep an emotional engagement."

One of Haynes' most ardent champions is his producer, Christine Vachon, whose company, Killer Films, was the co-producer of the current art-house hit "Happiness" by the other hot young filmmaker named Todd (Solondz).

"Todd has a special understanding of film language, of how everything works together from the tiniest prop to the sound effects," Ms. Vachon says of Haynes. "Each film comes fully formed in his mind, and then he painstakingly has to fill it out. I don't know any other director who does that to that degree."

"Velvet Goldmine" had a difficult birth. As it was about to go into production, the French company that had underwritten the original $8 million budget pulled out of the project. The producers then had to scramble to get another deal (for only $7 million), which meant that the shooting schedule had to be cut by several days. When Bowie refused to let the filmmakers use his songs, Haynes had to assemble a score that mixed cover versions of non-Bowie glam rock songs from the 1970s (including several early Roxy Music numbers) with made-to-order period pastiches. One of his models was the fictional 1993 movie about the Beatles, "Backbeat," in which young postpunk bands re-recorded and revitalized the group's early music.

If "Velvet Goldmine" at moments resurrects the glamour of old-time Hollywood musicals, in other ways the movie is pointedly anti-Hollywood. It isn't a boy meets girl (or boy) and lives happily-ever-after story. And unlike the typical rock-and-roll movie, in which the music liberates the characters and makes the world a groovier place, the glam rock movement is remembered as a phenomenon that, no matter how liberating it might have seemed at the time, didn't go anywhere.

Haynes abhors the way contemporary Hollywood films "only confirm social ideas of identity and reward them at the end."

"Film is an incredibly powerful medium that both reflects and instructs," he says. "That's why its job shouldn't be to tell you the truth or show you the cool way to be. As Fassbinder said, you can't give people the revolution. All you can do is show them the problems."