Year of Release: 1998
Director: Todd Haynes
Stars: Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Toni Collette, Eddie Izzard, Emily Woof, Janet McTeer, Michael Feast
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
In tackling the Glam Rock of the 1970’s, Todd Haynes elaborates a story that simultaneously celebrates the exuberance of rock music and the parallels that are created with the dawning of the androgyny / gay scene of our days.
Before Todd Haynes tackled the glam rock of the 1970’s, he had created a name for himself with two independent films – “Poison” and “Safe”, the last one being the first film to really put Julianne Moore as a leading protagonist (in 1995 she also ended up doing the highly forgettable films “Assassins” for Richard Donner, “Nine Months” for Chris Columbus and “Roommates” for Peter Yates). Though his previous efforts were met with positive reviews, and particularly “Poison” which placed him under the label of the “New Queer Cinema”, alongside such directors as Greg Araki (he recently directed “Mysterious Skin”), Tom Kalin (who directed the acclaimed “Swoon”) and Rose Troche (director of “Go fish”), “Velvet Gooldmine” proved out to be quite a challenge, not only by the sheer dimension of the events that it depicts, but also because the main person that it tried to emulate, didn’t want to be a part of the film – David Bowie himself (the title of the film is the name of one of Bowie’s songs).
The film describes the eruption of the Glam Rock scene in London in the 70’s, focusing on it’s brightest star, Brian Slade. The film’s narrative is presented in the guise of Orson Welles’ masterpiece “Citizen Kane”, where a journalist investigates what happened to the central character, who is no longer present, but who still makes itself feel present. The character “Arthur”, played by the always wonderful Christian Bale, is a journalist, himself a part of the movement of the glam rock, as a fan, movement that acted as a catalyst in his teens, that allowed him to come forth with his own sexuality. It’s upon his shoulders that the task of investigating the story falls. Todd Haynes creates analogies of the dandies that populate the story and the liberty that Glam Rock provides, with the legacy that Oscar Wilde has left (epitomized by his broach that goes from generation to generation). The “gay” condition here and it’s relation to the music, end up being synonymous of liberty and of the right to be different and artistic. Todd Haynes manages to create a sense of the wild and delirious world of rock and roll, with a great sense of humor (the whole posse that follows Brian Slade is a good example), something that Cameron Crowe also explored in “Almost Famous” – though his was a more autobiographical story.
Though the film has it’s shortcomings in the way it develops the story – the usual cliches are all there to see – rock and roll plus sex and drugs, the sheer energy that the film boasts – you just have to see the “video-clips” of Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Brian Slade - and it’s incredible visuals are more than rewarding (the film ended up wining the award for “Best Artistic Contribution” at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival). Todd Haynes manages to create an accomplished sight of the swinging London of the 70’s, be it the underground clubs where Brian Slade/ Jonathan Rhys Meyers makes his debut, or the concerts where Kurt Wilde/Ewan McGregor (standing for a mix of Lou Reed/Iggy Pop) totally chews the scenery and spits it out.
The actors are all amazing, starting by Ewan McGregor pre-Star Wars, edgy and with the remarkable presence and voice that he has showcased before and after (namely in films as Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” and Baz Luhrman’s “Moulin Rouge”), Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who even though this not being his film debut, made a huge ripple in the pond, and who has been more recently working with Woody Allen (“Match Point”) and winning Golden Globes for playing Elvis Presley (in the mini series “Elvis” directed by James Steven Sadwith). Both actors sang some of the songs that populate the film, some of them from Marc Bolan and T-Rex, others from Iggy Pop. The wonderful soundtrack includes the presence of such luminaries and classics as Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music, and some of the songs ended up being revised by the specially created band “Venus in Furs”, led by Radiohead’s lead singer, Thom Yorke (though the film also boasts performances of Brian Molko’s Placebo and Donna Matthews from the band Elastica). The cast also boasts good performances of Toni Collette, as Mandy Slade (based on David Bowie’s first wife, Angie), the liberal and vivacious wife of Brian Slade – Collette more recently was seen in Curtis Hanson’s “In Her Shoes” and was nominated for an Oscar in M. Night Shymalan’s “The Six Sense”. Christian Bale who ends up being an outsider in the love triangle that the three other main characters form, gives the film it’s resonance, in the way that the audience sees his growing from teenager to adult and the way the Glam Rock movement epitomizes so much for himself and his generation. Bale who more recently played Batman in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” also boasts in his resume Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” and Mary Harron’s “American Psycho”.
“Velvet Goldmine” is a film well worth watching – with the volume pulled way up, as it suggests. Though not entirely accomplished, it’s nonetheless a film that it’s daring, original and totally captivating, and for that alone, it deserves to find a wider audience than it did when it came out in the movie theaters.