Velvet Goldmine

James Berardinelli


Velvet Goldmine, director Todd Haynes' (Safe) much-anticipated look at the "glam rock" scene of two decades ago, is like a jigsaw puzzle with half of the pieces missing. Even when it's finished, it doesn't present a complete or compelling picture. Haynes' style, which is designed to evoke the '70s rather than rigorously re-create them, is an experiment in excess. Always artsy and occasionally pretentious, it drowns out any hope that there might be a real character or two lurking somewhere in the jumbled, virtually-incoherent plot.

Velvet Goldmine straddles two time periods: the early 1970s and 1984 (and, thrown in for good measure, there's also a brief prologue in 1854 Dublin, featuring a young Oscar Wilde). The framing story, which uses a Citizen Kane approach, occurs a decade after the fragmented main narrative, and centers on Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a journalist researching the whereabouts of a '70s singer/performer named Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who disappeared from the public view after his on-stage "assassination" was revealed to be a hoax. Back in the glam rock era, Stuart had been a fan of Slade's, and now he finds himself interviewing people he once gazed upon from afar: Slade's ex-wife, Mandy (Toni Collette); his former male lover and fellow glam rocker, Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor); and his first manager (Michael Feast). Gradually, Stuart begins to put together a picture of Slade, his music, and his times. The portrait is one of unrestrained debauchery, drug use, and bisexual sex.

Films like Velvet Goldmine, which focus on audio and visual extravagances to the exclusion of almost all else (including an engaging story) are frequently referred to as "triumphs of style over substance." In this case, however, I hesitate to use the word "triumph" to describe any aspect of the movie. While it's true that Velvet Goldmine is initially fresh to look at, the effect quickly grows repetitious, and the film seems destined to drag on forever. In trying to build a sense of time and place, Haynes sabotages his characters. No one in this movie is well-developed or capable of capturing the audience's attention. The style doesn't just distance the viewer from the screen personalities, it severs any connection. I didn't for a moment believe that any of these people are real, even though they are loosely based on genuine icons like David Bowie and Iggy Pop.

To be fair, there is one thing that Velvet Goldmine does well, and that's to create an entire soundtrack of '70s-sounding songs that could easily be mistaken for remnants of the recent musical past. Also of interest are some of the performances. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers gives a courageous turn as Slade, although, to be frank, his role is more about how he looks (effeminate features, long hair, makeup, etc.) than how he acts. Ewan McGregor, who (in what is becoming a trademark for him) offers a quick view of the Full Monty, is almost completely unrecognizable as Wild. Eddie Izzard is wonderful as Slade's tough, money-grubbing manager. Unfortunately, all of this flamboyant company has the effect of making Christian Bale (not the strongest performer in good circumstances) come across as flat and uninteresting.

From a purely photographic standpoint, Velvet Goldmine offers a few interesting moments, such as the "$" signs that appear in a manager's eyes as he contemplates how much money he can make by teaming Wild and Slade, or the sight of a spaceship flying over a pair of men about to make love. Anyone who didn't know that Haynes is gay would be able to guess it from the way Velvet Goldmine is shot. While men are frequently depicted in an eroticized fashion, women are presented clinically. In Haynes' hazy, psychedelic world, men, not women, are the sexual objects.

One line of dialogue from Velvet Goldmine sums up my opinion of the film: "What started out as an interesting experiment has turned into a demeaning waste of time." Those with a particular interest in this genre of music or the time period may find something worthwhile in Velvet Goldmine. Everyone else will find themselves looking for all those pieces of the puzzle that Haynes forgot to include.