All That Glitters Isn't Ziggy Stardust

Mason Hawk


For all of Velvet Goldmine¡¯s failings, I can't, in all honesty, say that I disliked the movie. It's a glittering spectacle that draws you in with carefully calculated measures of sensory overload and excess upon excess upon excess -- just like the real Ziggy Stardust did two decades ago.

Velvet Goldmine is to the glam movement what the movie Sid and Nancy was to punk. Filmmaker Todd Haynes avoids the criticisms that were aimed at Sid & Nancy for taking too many liberties with the truth, by taking so many that, like Oliver North's JFK, we understand the movie is a complete fabrication, albeit one that borrows heavily, at convenient moments, from the facts.

At its most basic, Velvet Goldmine is a classic mystery. Reporter Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is given the assignment of unearthing the whereabouts of Bowie-esque singer Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Myers). Slade, whose career plummeted after he was caught faking his own assassination on-stage, has disappeared from public view. Like any good Sam Spade, reporter Stuart only becomes interested in the investigation about the time he is called off the case.

Meyers makes for a decent glam star, although his physique is a tad too muscular and his movements a bit too stilted for the part. The star that shines more brightly is Ewan McGregor as the Iggy Pop-esque nihilist Curt Wild (who for the record looks, unintentionally or not, more like Kurt Cobain than Iggy). Also of merit is Toni Colette's performance as the Angela Bowie pastiche Mandy Slade.

As you've probably noticed, nearly every character in Velvet Goldmine is a facsimile of a real human blueprint. Haynes, however, likes to mix and match. For example, we see an Andy Warhol clone hanging with a pastiche based on David Johansen (of New York Dolls fame) instead of a member of the Velvet Underground, although in real life the Velvets were his prot¨¦g¨¦s and the Dolls were his rivals. [See Interview with Sylvian Sylvain]. Later, wife Mandy discovers husband Brian Slade in bed with Curt Wild, hence, the Curt Wild/Iggy Pop character has now morphed into a Curt Wild/Mick Jagger creation. (In reality, Angela Bowie discovered husband David in the sack with Mick Jagger, according to legend.) When a Suzi Quatro look-a-like appears, she is singing the New York Dolls classic "Personality Crisis" instead of one of her own tunes. And when some Dolls clones appear -- complete with a vocalist donning David Jo's trademark top hat and tails and a spitting image of Johnny Thunders on guitar -- they play cabaret music instead of the gut-splitting rock for which they were known. The list goes on....

Although this approach makes for some interesting effects, it is a bit disconcerting for the viewer and probably more so for the celebrities who have had their histories mutated into these convoluted fantasies. Imagine seeing a picture from your wedding or high school prom, and instead of your wife or girlfriend, the donut girl from down the block appears next to you in the shot. I think you get the idea...

Furthermore, as with many mysteries, the end of Velvet Goldmine is somewhat dissatisfying. The pieces never really fit together, and to be honest, I'm still not sure if I understand what happened to Slade. He appears to have grown a blond pompadour and landed a part on a network variety show, but I wouldn't bank on it.

So what is there to like about Velvet Goldmine? Well, for starters, it captures an era in pop music that has gone fairly undocumented. And it does so in a way which proves that Haynes knows and understands his material. As with the best-made music videos, the film is highly entertaining and pleasantly sophisticated in its treatment of its subjects. References to Oscar Wilde are a bit overwrought but the ambitious effort, in and of itself, is noteworthy.

And the music, some of which is original, is surprisingly good. I found myself liking, against my better judgment, some of the recreations of the glam rock genre that boomed out from the Dolby sound system. Moreover, the choices of classic non-original music -- including "Satellite of Love" by Lou Reed and the aforementioned Doll's tune -- fit in nicely with the mood and the timing of the movie.

I guess it all depends on what your expectations are. The promos for Velvet Goldmine tell you to "expect the unexpected" and to a certain extent perhaps you should. There is a whole lotta blatant homosexuality going on, and I'm sure the effect will be shocking for many. Whether the movie is thought-provoking, however, is another issue. But like a good drug, Velvet Goldmine gives you the high you want for a limited period of time. And the movie does so without the residual hangover of a controlled substance. That's worth the price of a ticket, isn't it?