Velvet Goldmine captures the spirit, if not the biography, of David Bowie

Velvet Goldmine captures the spirit, if not the biography, of David Bowie

Photo: Velvet Goldmine
Photo: Velvet Goldmine

As fans took to social media to mourn David Bowie’s unexpected death, there was one particular sentiment expressed over and over again. The A.V. Club’s own Katie Rife put it best when she wrote, “What made David Bowie more than just an ordinary rock star was his ability to unite the outcasts, to reach out to everyone who felt different and let them know that they were not only okay, but wonderful and precious.” Bowie didn’t just make music; his extraterrestrial presence reassured his fans—particularly those who felt lost, unloved, and misunderstood—that there were other weirdos out there who would accept them for who they were.

That’s also the sentiment of Todd Haynes’ 1998 salute to glam rock, Velvet Goldmine. The film was initially planned as a more conventional biopic, but Bowie famously disapproved of the project and refused to grant Haynes the rights to his music. That fact alone is enough to turn off Bowie fans; why watch an “unofficial” biography disliked by the icon himself? But those creative restrictions may have been the best thing to happen to Velvet Goldmine. Freed from any pull toward historical accuracy (if he ever felt any in the first place), Haynes explores the singer’s early career from another angle: not what it means to be David Bowie, but what it means to be a David Bowie fan.

The film says as much in its Ziggy Stardust-inspired opening title card: “Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume.” In other words: Who cares about the recreating details? This is about celebrating the energy.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Velvet Goldmine

Based loosely on Bowie’s life with bits of Marc Bolan and Jobriath’s biography thrown in, Velvet Goldmine centers on Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a glam rock icon who sets 1970s London on fire with his Ziggy Stardust-esque stage persona, Maxwell Demon. It’s an abstract puzzle box of a film, and some have dismissed Velvet Goldmine as a two-hour music video, which isn’t entirely unfair. Full of covers and artful originals that play out in enigmatic music video sequences, the film pulsates with a sound that evokes the era in general more than it does Bowie in particular. (Brian Eno, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, and T. Rex all appear on the soundtrack.)

After a brief prologue that suggests Oscar Wilde was brought to Earth by space aliens to father the glam-rock movement (this movie is nothing if not strange), Velvet Goldmine borrows its structure from, of all things, Citizen Kane. A decade after Slade faked an onstage assassination in a much-maligned publicity stunt, journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is tasked with figuring out what happened to the former star. In a bleak, almost dystopian version of 1984, Arthur interviews Slade’s former friends and colleagues, allowing the film to dissolve into vignettes that explore Slade’s life and career.

But the structure is in many ways a feint. Velvet Goldmine isn’t particularly interested in exploring what made Slade (and by extension, Bowie) tick. Though it inserts a slight clunky “twist” ending about Slade’s fate, the film’s real twist is that it ultimately cares far more about Arthur than it does about Slade.

Christian Bale in Velvet Goldmine

Unlike the objective investigation in Citizen Kane, Arthur’s exploration of Slade’s past doubles as an exploration of his own. He was a closeted teen living with his conservative parents during the 1970s. The glam-rock movement showed him he wasn’t a shameful deviant—as his father asserts—but just a kid who hadn’t found his people yet.

Scott Tobias noted the same thing in his New Cult Canon examination of the film, although we disagree on which exact scene represents Velvet Goldmine’s thesis statement. He argues it’s the one in which a young Arthur first sneaks out of the house in his glam rock attire—equal parts exhilarated and awkward. I would point to the scene in which Arthur and his parents watch Slade proudly discuss his bisexuality at a televised press conference, and Arthur fantasies about jumping up and announcing “That is me! That’s me!”

But both scenes get at the same idea: Haynes is less concerned about the specifics of what happened between Slade, his wife Mandy (a stunning Toni Collette), his manager (Eddie Izzard), and his rock hero/lover Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor, channeling both Iggy Pop and Lou Reed while looking eerily like Kurt Cobain), than he is in exploring what glam rock meant to a repressed kid like Arthur. Watching Curt and Slade flaunt their relationship (they’re described at one point as “Tracy and Hepburn for the ’70s”) reassures Arthur that he isn’t alone. Velvet Goldmine likely taught many of its young queer fans the same thing. The whole film is unabashedly, joyously gay—something it’s disappointingly rare to see in any mainstream film, let alone one released in 1998.

The Curt/Slade love story is another plot point that jibes more with Bowie’s philosophy than his biography. There are rumors that Bowie and Mick Jagger did more than just dance in the street together, and Bowie did famously discuss his bisexuality (only to later call himself a “closet heterosexual”), but Brian Slade is a far more openly transgressive figure in Velvet Goldmine. Haynes literalizes Bowie’s open-minded attitude into something more concrete, focusing his film specifically on the intersection of glam rock and the gay community.

Glitter-filled, chaotic, and often bizarre (one key emotional scene is acted out by two young girls playing with Barbie dolls, a nod to Haynes’ earlier Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story), Velvet Goldmine nevertheless possesses a wonderfully observed humanity to go with its aggressive experimentalism. If the story of the rise and fall of an ambitious rock star is a little overfamiliar, there’s a lot of nuance in the way Haynes explores the Mandy/Slade/Curt dynamic. The characters may think they sound brilliant when they crib from Oscar Wilde with lines like, “What is true about music is true about life: that beauty reveals everything because it expresses nothing,” or “A real artist creates beautiful things and puts nothing of his own life into them. But Velvet Goldmine distances itself just enough to reveal the hollowness of such a flippant worldview. If the film occasionally feels gaudy, pretentious, and scattered, that’s as much a commentary on glam rock as anything else.

Though Velvet Goldmine was met with mixed reviews and a dim box office, it found a second life as a cult classic—one particularly beloved by young audiences. Helped along by Sandy Powell’s impeccable costume design, Haynes makes the energetic glam rock era feel impossibly appealing, especially for those too young to have lived through it. As Haynes put it in a 2007 interview with The A.V. Club, “It’s the film that seems to mean the most to a lot of teenagers and young people, who are just obsessed with that movie. They’re exactly who I was thinking about when I made Velvet Goldmine, but it just didn’t get to them the first time around.”

But it’s no surprise that Bowie disapproved of the film. Velvet Goldmine isn’t interested in sanctifying Slade, instead arguing that much of his originality was stolen, borrowed, or built with the help of others. There’s a decidedly cynical edge to Slade’s story, one that potentially casts Bowie’s ever-changing artistic persona as more of a commercial choice than an artistic one. But that’s only a failing for those who want Velvet Goldmine to be a faithful recreation of history, which it isn’t trying to be.

Instead the film saves its optimism for its true hero, Arthur. While his idols drive themselves mad trying to stay on the cutting edge, teenaged Arthur is just thrilled to be invited to the party. By the time he finally gets up the courage to run away from home and start living his life as a groupie, the glam-rock era is basically over. Long after Slade’s fake assassination has tarnished his reputation, Arthur is still unironically dressing up as Maxwell Demon. In one of the film’s most endearing scenes, Arthur dances with childlike enthusiasm at a “Death Of Glitter” tribute concert. Rather than mock his inability to recognize the end of an era, Velvet Goldmine revels in his naïve enthusiasm.

By 1984, it seems Arthur has given up his wild youth for a more conventional life, but the film ultimately argues that glam rock’s spirit never really dies, even during eras in which platform shoes and glitter eye shadow are less socially acceptable. A chance encounter with a former idol and a brief passing-of-the-torch moment reassures Arthur that regardless of the “authenticity” of the glam-rock era, what he felt about it was authentic.

Alternately exuberant and melancholic, Velvet Goldmine asserts that whatever Bowie meant to you, at whatever stage he meant it to you, is real and justified and important. Whatever he helped you discover about yourself and whatever communities you found because of him will exist long after his death. Because even when the masks we consciously adopt in our youth slip—once we stop dying our hair blue to mimic our favorite pop stars—those experiences still matter: They shaped who we are.