WERE OSCAR WILDE and David Bowie aliens from outer space? At the
beginning of Todd Haynes' new film, Velvet Goldmine, a flying
saucer drops the infant Wilde, carrying a magic amulet with him, on the
doorstep of his parents. Many years later, the jewel is found by the
little boy who is to become a fictionalized version of David Bowie (yes,
yes, I know, he's fictionalized himself enough already).
In Velvet Goldmine, a rock star named Brian Slade (Jonathan
Rhys-Meyers) is the Bowie of his dimension, complete with flamingo-tinged
hair and a Ziggy Stardust-like alter ego, Maxwell Demon. At the peak of
his career in 1974, Slade is shot onstage at London's Hammersmith Odeon,
but what at first looks like an assassination turns out to be a neurotic
On the 10th anniversary of Slade's "shooting," we visit a gray, tightly
run New York under the regime of a Reagan-like President Reynolds. A
reporter named Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) has been assigned to find
the missing rock god.
It's a painful job for Stuart. The reporter grew up gay in the suburbs
and was saved from self-hatred and self- destruction by Slade's
gender-blur glitter rock; the faked assassination was a personal betrayal
of his trust. At this point, you may sense where Haynes has gone
wrong--who can revisit the music of his youth without at least some
Stuart, however, is a sad, mumbling shoegazer who'd probably be better
off listening to Natalie Merchant. Still, Arthur eventually solves the
mystery of Slade's disappearance and is himself made whole by an encounter
with Slade's old friend, collaborator and lover Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor).
HAYNES IS A postmodern pastiche artist. His early film He Was
Once... parodied claymation Davy and Goliath cartoons. The underground
Superstar (using Barbie and Ken dolls) was a show-biz bio of Karen
Carpenter. B-grade '50s science fiction movies gave structure to the smart
AIDS allegory, Poison. And Safe, Haynes' best film, was an
inside-out version of a television disease-of-the-week movie.
As a mark of his ambition for Velvet Goldmine, Haynes has used
Citizen Kane as the model for his narrative. Stuart is given his
assignment in a newsroom with a movie screen, just as in the beginning of
Orson Welles' classic. Stuart's sources include Cecil (Michael Feast),
Slade's ex-business manager--a character very much like Joseph Cotton's
Jed Leland in Kane. Slade's ex-wife, Mandy (Toni Collette), is
interviewed by Arthur in a closed nightclub during a thunderstorm, as was
the Susan Alexander character in Kane.
Velvet Goldmine is also inspired by the ideas of the Fox Mulder
of rock critics: Greil Marcus. One of the exhibits in the search for Slade
is a record album titled Lipstick Traces, which is also the title
of a Marcus book. Like Marcus, Haynes tries to search out the links
between pop music and higher art forms--hence the guest appearance by
Wilde in a story about the glitter-rock era. (Quotes from Wilde and
philosopher Norman O. Brown stud the film.)
And like Marcus, Haynes stares so closely at the fragments of a scene
that he loses the big picture of what was going on elsewhere. London pop
music has always been a blend of so many signals that even the most
sympathetic, studious American listener is going to miss clues--everything
from slang to the names of neighborhoods. Haynes, an American, suffers the
same problems as a European making a movie saluting American pop culture.
Haynes does acknowledges some of the musicians who pioneered
gender-blur rock, such as Little Richard. Still, it's overstating the case
to argue that glitter was ever anything more than a marginal outcropping
of British rock in the early 1970s, back when men first started to perform
in torn lingerie and lipstick.
Who can blame Haynes for romanticizing? Like all Americans entranced by
British rock music--who spent hours scrutinizing the cryptic album
covers--Haynes has deluded himself into thinking that England was a
country where everyone would understand your jokes, wimps were welcome and
all sexual possibilities were accepted.
Of course, the reality was something different. The glitter scene
wasn't democratic, as punk was--snobbery ran wild. And as I recall it,
more and more sobering recollections pop up: Oh, yes, them were great
bloody days. Dried egg white fixing glitter to the eyelids, shedding
razor-sharp bits into the corneas; too-tight French-cut T-shirts garroting
your armpits; badly engineered, hulking platform wedgies held on by tiny
A typical memory of the time is propping up a Qualuuded date as she
limps back on her twisted ankle to the RTD bus stop or escaping a disco
where all the Eurotrash snubbed us for being suburban pratts. Which we
IT WAS TRULY FUN music, however, and Velvet Goldmine is
certainly not a fun movie. The baleful Christian Bale sets the tone for
this study of melodramatic, facetious music. Velvet Goldmine is a
dirge for all of those polysexual dreams running down the drain like so
much periwinkle-colored hair dye.
Unfortunately, the film is most coherent when it follows the well-worn
wheel ruts of the standard show-biz biography: star gets swelled head,
star fucks himself up on drugs, star finally honks off his loyal wife.
The center of Velvet Goldmine is a bisexual love triangle
modeled on the relationship of David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Thus, Slade's
wife, Mandy (played by Toni Collette with the jittery, needy, scary
mannerisms of Liza Minnelli), must be based on Angie Bowie. The ex-Mrs.
David Bowie was on the chat-show circuit a few years back, telling
everyone who would listen about the day she discovered her husband and
Mick Jagger in bed together, and that anecdote (with Mick changed into
Iggy) turns up in Velvet Goldmine. Curt Wild is a fictionalized
Iggy to match the fantasy Bowie, Slade.
As Slade, Rhys-Meyer is no worse than the since-forgotten pseudo
Bowieoids of that time, such as Jobriath or Leo Sayre. But fictionalizing
Iggy Pop--now you've insulted the Sultan! McGregor, the Scottish actor
best known from Trainspotting, commits the common mistake of people
covering Iggy Pop songs: he tries to make the vocals musical.
Those magnificent Aborigine death shouts that Iggy calls singing don't
benefit from added melody. McGregor's preposterous impersonation of the
sui-generis rock star performing Iggy's songs "TV Eye" and "Gimme Danger"
is insufferable. This isn't a performance, this is karaoke.
For whatever legal reason, Haynes wasn't allowed to use Bowie's music.
In Surviving Picasso and Love Is the Devil, the filmmakers
had no legal access to real Picasso and Francis Bacon paintings and had to
create imitation ones. Similarly Velvet Goldmine's soundtrack
contains Bowie and Iggy pastiches created by Ron Ashton, ex of Iggy Pop's
band the Stooges.
The rest of the film's soundtrack consists mostly of pieces by Roxy
Music and solo work by Roxy Music's gifted keyboardist, Brian Eno. Roxy
Music was interesting for the tension between the crooning of lead singer
Brian Ferry and the icy, futuristic keyboard playing of Eno. Although the
Roxies dressed up in Halloween-came-early outfits for their publicity
photos, it's less clear that gender blur interested them.
The group's album covers featured lingerie photos of supermodels like
Jerry Hall, who later married Ferry. One feels dislocated hearing Roxy
Music's "2HB," a song about Ferry's manly admiration for Humphrey Bogart,
sung by Velvet Goldmine's Brian Slade, covered with more glitter
than Dorothy's pumps and more feathers that a pheasant.
Haynes makes clever use of the Eno song "Dead Finks Don't Talk" as
accompaniment for scenes of Stuart unearthing Slade's betrayal of his wife
and fans. Still, Eno was a collaborator in the changing of Bowie's stage
persona from Diamond Dog glitter boy to bloodless white-clad aristocrat,
and the two worked together on Bowie's Low and Heroes
albums. In Haynes' view, Bowie's change of style betrayed glitter rock and
the bisexuality it championed. But since Eno was Bowie's accomplice in
killing off glitter, why celebrate Eno's brainy, cold-blooded pop music?
This may be quibbling. All of those varied musical styles and substyles
are moldering in a common grave today, unvisited by any but us cultural
sextons. But this difference between Bowie and Roxy Music is notable; and
what Haynes has done is the same as making a movie about Nirvana using
Soundgarden's music. (And you know there's going to be a Nirvana movie
someday, as sure as needles are sharp.)
Velvet Goldmine is an inchoate picture, all about the
filmmaker's deeply personal reactions to glitter rock. It's always
fascinating to watch an artist work out his obsessions. But in losing the
music of Bowie, Haynes couldn't find a worthwhile substitute; it's like an
Elvis movie without Elvis.
True, imitation Bowies were ridiculous, but somehow the real one
wasn't. Space alienism? Who knows. But like opera, rock almost always
looks bad in close-up on a movie screen. Velvet Goldmine will join
the rock fantasias that seem like betrayal of the personal daydreams of
most fans, about what the meanings of songs were--like Ken Russell's
Tommy or Franc Roddam's Quadrophenia. This film fails its
ambitions; it aspires to be David Bowie, and it's more like Gary Numan.