Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The New Cult Canon: Velvet Goldmine

Illustration for article titled The New Cult Canon: Velvet Goldmine

"One day, the whole stinking world would be theirs." —Velvet Goldmine

To me, the key scene in Todd Haynes' experimental musical Velvet Goldmine—not the thesis, necessarily, but the reason why it was made—takes place in the early '70s, just as the glam-rock movement is starting to find its legs. In flashback, Arthur Stuart, a London journalist played by Christian Bale, remembers a formative time when this music (and the sexually ambiguous glamourpusses who created it) spoke to him. Living with his conservative parents, the teenage Arthur could only furtively embrace this new world in his room, while surrounded by posters, listening to a smuggled album by the David Bowie-like icon Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and vamping it up in front of a full-length mirror. But one day, he works up the courage to take his passions into the light, sneaking out of the house in a drab plaid coat so as to not attract attention in his working-class neighborhood. He then tosses the coat over a brick wall, revealing a tight purple shirt that could hardly be more conspicuous against the city's backdrop of semi-permanent gray.


It's a classic coming-out scene for Arthur, but Haynes and Bale don't play it as strictly joyous. Instead, we witness a kid who's simultaneously liberated and terrified to put himself out there; even when he spots another pack of like-minded teenagers, he feels removed from them, and we never see him with friends apart from his fictional ones. It's an ambiguous moment in an ambiguous film about ambiguous figures, but there can be no doubt that the music once gave Arthur the courage to express what he was really feeling. Here's an alien subculture that grew apart from hippies, Mods, and rockers—to say nothing of buttoned-down society—and for a brief moment, it brought guys like Arthur out into something close to the mainstream. And though the movement was extinguished as quickly as it arrived, the cat was permanently out of the bag.

Much like Haynes' recent I'm Not There, which dissected the various phases of Bob Dylan's life and career by casting six different actors (including Bale and Cate Blanchett) as Dylan, Velvet Goldmine doesn't come at glam-rock directly, and both films cause no end of frustration to those who can't get on their wavelength. (One of the frustrated was Harvey Weinstein, who effectively buried Velvet Goldmine at Miramax, then in an odd twist, later agreed to distribute I'm Not There as-is.) Haynes' background in semiotics has led some critics to dismiss these films as too academic, but figures like Dylan and Bowie are notoriously elusive, and his effort to access them indirectly, through allusion and representation, pays more dividends than a straightforward biopic ever could. (Much as I admired Martin Scorsese's four-hour Dylan documentary No Direction Home, for example, I'm Not There captures his essence in half the time with twice the artistry.)

Velvet Goldmine opens with a white-on-black epigram: "Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume." That play-it-loud sentiment, despite having Bowie and Iggy Pop songs replaced by mostly skillful imitations and covers, is really the best way to approach the film, at least on first viewing. For the uninitiated, catching all the references and sketched-out interactions in Haynes' densely layered parallel history is a fool's game. It also violates the spirit of the film, which is so much more about capturing a feeling than anything more concrete. Fortunately, Haynes the academic doesn't trump Haynes the sensualist, so it's best just to let Velvet Goldmine wash over you, and sort out the particulars when it's over. Even if you get nothing else out of it, at least you get an experience.

A dreamy prologue in 1854 Dublin posits Oscar Wilde as glam-rock's progenitor, deposited on the streets via UFO, bearing an emerald brooch that his pop descendents would inherit more than a century later. From this Ziggy Stardust mythology springs odd creatures like Brian Slade, an androgynous superstar whom Haynes models partly after Bowie and partly after Jobriath, a lesser-known flash-in-the-pan singer (and the first openly gay pop star) who's remembered mostly by hardcore glam cultists. The film catches Slade at the height of his powers, closing out a wildly popular world tour under the nom de rock Maxwell Demon—one mask in a musical subgenre built on tricks of identity. During the final show in 1974, Slade takes a bullet from a gunman stage left, but when it's later revealed that the assassination was some ill-considered publicity stunt, the media and the fans revolt, and the singer slips quickly into obscurity.

Ten years later, the world has gone Orwellian (the year is 1984), yielding all its color to a grim totalitarian state where the biggest pop icon appears on giant screens, expressing his support for the president. Working as a newspaper reporter, the now meekly conformist Arthur is dispatched to do a "where are they now" piece on Slade for the anniversary of his staged assassination. Arthur's investigation into Slade's past (and his own) consciously recalls William Alland's role in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, and lends Velvet Goldmine some all-important narrative backbone. With that architecture in place, the film is free to poke into Slade's life from several angles, as Arthur gathers stories from an early manager, Slade's estranged wife Mandy (Toni Collette), and finally Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), an Iggy Pop type whose animal intensity once complemented Slade's more ethereal stage presence. Slade and Wild's rocky creative and romantic coupling is the film's emotional lynchpin, and you can see their chemistry onstage:


The clip above is just a taste of Velvet Goldmine's experimental editing style, which is long on montage and short on conventional scenes. As Slade and Wild blaze through Brian Eno's "Baby's On Fire," Haynes offers glimpses of polymorphous perversity backstage and in teenage Arthur's bedroom, where just a newspaper photograph is enough to trigger his imagination. There's also a shot of Eddie Izzard, who does scene-stealing work as the opportunistic manager who helps arrange this mutually destructive marriage. Cynics might call Velvet Goldmine a two-hour music video, but the wall-to-wall songs and stage performances give Haynes the freedom to move around time and space, commenting on events on- and offstage, zipping from one period to the next, and registering the movement's seismic impact in large crowds and within more intimate confines.

It took serious moxie for Haynes to consciously crib from the greatest film ever made (by consensus, anyway, though you'll get no argument from me), but the Citizen Kane structure is perhaps Velvet Goldmine's biggest masterstroke. Think of the alternative: Had Haynes attempted to access Brian Slade's life more directly, he would have risked reducing him to a pile of clichés about a hardscrabble, misfit upbringing and standard-issue Behind The Music rock-star abuses. But by presenting Slade, like Kane, as a mystery to be solved (or not), Haynes can evoke the glam-rock movement without destroying the all-important mystique that sustains it. After all, this is a musical subgenre built on fluid identity and sexuality, and the illusion of a fantastical world that doesn't have much in common with the real one. When Mandy Slade says a line like "True beauty reveals everything because it expresses nothing," it's the kind of vague, dreamy, virtually meaningless statement that could only be uttered in the glam universe.


But just as Haynes relies on Citizen Kane for a narrative framework, Velvet Goldmine also breaks from it in an important way: It's Kane without "Rosebud." There's no skeleton key that unlocks the mystery of Slade's person, revealing some hidden longing at the core of his being. Haynes isn't out to explode the myths that glam-rock stars construct around themselves; otherwise, he wouldn't have opened the film with the likes of Oscar Wilde getting beamed down from a spaceship. "You live in terror of not being misunderstood," Mandy tells Slade after their marriage has dissolved, and she's right: The minute people think they know the real Slade, behind the carefully crafted mask of Maxwell Demon, he's exposed as being as painfully banal as the rest of humanity. It might sound like an odd goal, but Haynes succeeds smashingly at keeping the audience from truly knowing his pop icons.

At its most seductive, Velvet Goldmine seems to take place inside the snow globe that falls from Kane's hand. Before it shatters and the world becomes a gray, oppressive place again, it's a sustained hermetic paradise, with fan-blown white feathers drifting down from the ceiling. When the movement dies out, it leaves behind sad scenes like the glammed-down Wild meeting Arthur in a lonely dive in '84, but Haynes mostly longs to celebrate a fleeting cultural moment that, at the very least, still lives on in the imaginations of those outcasts whom it enchanted and inspired. It's a musical fantasia about a time when musical fantasias were possible.


Coming Up:

Next week: The Limey (commentary track)

Feb. 19: Eyes Wide Shut

Feb. 26: Heavenly Creatures

Mar. 5: Femme Fatale