At a pivotal moment in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, a glam-rock idol named Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) appears at a televised press conference and declares his bisexuality. Watching at home, a closeted teen leaps to his feet and shouts, “That’s me!” There are about a dozen moments in Velvet Goldmine, an audacious and exhilarating exploration of image, celebrity, and the need to belong, that made me feel like doing the same.
I didn’t attend a rock concert until I was 18 years old, but I’ve never forgotten the sensation of walking into a mobbed Municipal Auditorium and feeling that I’d found a brotherhood that was always waiting for me. Velvet Goldmine is an elegy for the moment in every pop-conscious teen’s life when he finds the music that speaks to, and for, him. It’s also the most original movie musical since Pennies from Heavena delirious, excessive meditation on the ephemerality of pop, beauty, and youth.
At its most basic (and silliest) level, Velvet Goldmine is a mystery set against the rise and fall of glam rock in early-’70s London. In the opening credits, a shot of glam kids on the prowl captures the giddiness of fandom as brazenly as the opening of A Hard Day’s Night. Then Brian Slade, the glitter-rock superstar (all resemblances to David Bowie purely coincidental), goes down onstage in a blast of gunfire. The film burns up in the projector, and Slade’s image melts into the void; the next thing we see is New York in 1984, a place dominated by a Reagan-like authoritarian and bland vanilla hegemony.
A British reporter, Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is assigned to find out what really happened to Brian Slade after his “assassination” 10 years before. The search leads to Slade’s abandoned manager (Michael Feast), the singer’s embittered ex-wife (Toni Collette), and Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), the mascara’ed American proto-punk whose act was liberally borrowed by Sladeand who shares a long-forgotten link to the investigator. The further Arthur burrows into the enigma of the fallen idol, the more fragmented his sense of the singer’s identity becomes. Instead, it’s his own buried past that emerges from the shadows.
The movie bobs and weaves between Slade’s rise to stardom and Arthur’s recovered memories of the joy and acceptance he felt as a glam groupie. Along the way, Haynes’ script plays amusing roman à clef games with glam history. Curt Wild, enacted with exhibitionist fervor and disarming tenderness by McGregor, serves double duty as Iggy Pop and The New York Dolls’ David Johansen; Eddie Izzard plays Slade’s manager as a thuggish amalgam of Bowie’s handler Tony DeFries and the Dolls’ Malcolm McLaren. Similarly, the delicious soundtrack mixes pitch-perfect Ziggy Stardust knock-offscommissioned from Shudder to Think, Grant Lee Buffalo, and otherswith swanky glam artifacts like Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love.” Whatever the closing disclaimer says, the relation to actual music and musicians adds to the movie’s epic you-are-there quality.
Despite his teasing nods to rockumentary, however, Haynes’ telling of the tale is anything but straightforward. When the story isn’t progressing through inventive mock video clips or fake newscasts, the characters dress in circus garb and express themselves in Oscar Wilde’s epigrams. Haynes takes his cues as writer and director from the exuberant artifice in the music: He matches the music-hall bounce of Slade’s songs with snowstorms of feathers and glitter, Mélies-like camera tricks, and sudden zooms and speeded-up montages that scream end-of-the-’60s mod. Glam music and sex are inextricable here.
But Todd Haynes isn’t a pop scold, and his affection for the ’70s’ happy-face hedonism gives Velvet Goldmine its trippy poignancy. Unlike the makers of The Ice Storm, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and the rest of the recent we-come-to-bury-the-’70s subgenre, Haynes sees the decade as a triumpha moment when queer culture subverted the mainstream. Velvet Goldmine is the first American movie in years that treats the sexual revolution as a victory, and a battle worth rejoining.
Haynes first won notoriety with Superstar, his 1987 film that reenacted the life of the late Karen Carpenter entirely with Barbie dolls. (The cruel aptness of the metaphor wasn’t lost on Richard Carpenter, who successfully blocked the film from being shown.) Haynes followed that with Poison, a 1991 drama that explored what it means to be ghettoized for sexual preference. Here, the director expressed his solidarity with anyone who dared to be an outsideras he did with subtle but scalding sarcasm in Safe, his horror movie about the consequences of denying all pleasure and stimuli to further the illusion of security. Velvet Goldmine is anything but Safe: It’s an immersion in sensation, especially the sense of liberation found in discovering you’re not a freak for dressing, acting, or loving differently.
For Velvet Goldmine, Haynes cheekily borrows the basic structure of Citizen Kane, from the fake-documentary opening to the interview flashbacks. There is a Rosebud, a saucer-shaped pin handed down from aliens (!) to Oscar Wilde (!!!) to a succession of rogue dandies. There is a Jed Leland figure, a coke-dusted Xanadu, even an amusing recreation of Susan Kane’s first appearance in her deserted nightclub. Yet this isn’t smart-ass movie geekery, even if Haynes indulges himself with references to everything from Performance to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Kane, after all, searches a famous man’s past for the human being buried in the hype. In the end, though, Charles Foster Kane the media invention lives on, and the man himself remains a cipher. Scratch the surface of any pop idol, Haynes suggests, and you wind up with the same story of self-invention.
Only there’s no more meaning to Brian Slade than the personae he adopts and discards like feather boas. “A man’s life is his image,” says a Haynes spokesman, knowing full well that in rock ’n’ roll the opposite is equally true: Celebrity lasts only as long as a performer can cloak himself in a billboard-sized myth, onto which fans can project their own desires for escape and transcendence. Small wonder the other fictional touchstone of this universe is Dorian Grayexcept here it’s the portrait that remains ageless.
I don’t know how Velvet Goldmine would’ve affected me if I weren’t a downside-of-30 rock ’n’ roll junkie feeling a wistful disconnection from youth culture. But Haynes’ glam-rock fantasia captures not only the rush of discovery, but the inevitable end that’s part of pop’s flickering life. Maybe that’s why his closing image is so haunting and so just: a rocker’s declaration to fade away never, fading away.
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