Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine opens with a title card that reads: “Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume”.
It’s a fittingly saucy, tongue-in-cheek introduction to a movie that’s proud to be loud. Haynes – the queer filmmaker who enraged the NEA (Poison), made an art-house horror film out of San Fernando Valley life (Safe), and told the tragic real-life story of Karen Carpenter with Barbie dolls (Superstar) – is back with his most commercial outing yet.
Velvet Goldmine is an opulent paean to the rise and fall of London’s glam rock scene (which included David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, T.Rex) and to the youth culture “head” flicks of the early 1970’s (A Clockwork Orange, Performance, Quadrophenia).
Haynes’ film is such a visual, musical feast that it’s easy to get lost in the lush trappings, even though we never really establish any emotional connections with its cast of decadent characters.
Using the same framework as Citizen Kane, Velvet Goldmine begins with the journey of Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a British journalist sent by a New York newspaper to track down the whereabouts of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) 10 years after his disappearance from the rock world.
Arthur’s investigation leads him back to his own coming of age as a closeted gay teen whose first whiff of liberation came via Slade’s sexy album covers. Adopting the alter ego Maxwell Demon, the flagrantly bisexual pretty boy slithered into fame and fandom as a sinewy alien on a mission to love. (The character is clearly modeled after Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.).
Haynes cuts back and forth between past and present as Arthur interviews the two people who knew Slade best: Mandy, Brian’s American fag-hag ex-wife (Toni Collette), and Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), a volatile East Village punk rocker who was the great love of Brian’s life. You can see true giddiness at work in Haynes’ characters, which are modeled after pop cultural icons.
Mandy is really just a variation of Sally Bowles in Cabaret: She’s the definitive party girl, so blithely wrapped up in glamour and free love that she fails to see the signs that Brian is slipping out of her reach. Toni Collette found the unlikely role of a lifetime in Muriel’s Wedding, but has since been stuck with the ugly duckling role (Emma, Clockwatchers). Here, she reinvents herself with a brassy, poignant performance.
(The Australian actress also deserves special credit for perfectly capturing the dialect of an American girl who affects a pseudo-British accent.) McGregor is good at affecting the pasty heroin chic look he perfected in Trainspotting, but his role makes less dramatic sense. The film really belongs to Jonathan Rhys- Meyers’ pouty puss.
The actor doesn’t really get to play more than an insolent, self-absorbed brat, but his sensual presence dominates every frame. The thesis of Haynes’ tribute is that the short-lived world of glam rock was itself a knowing tribute to the consummate dandy of wit, art, and tease: Oscar Wilde. Don’t look for much depth here, there isn’t any. The scripting is clunky, and there are three too many endings. The film is just one grand, romantic flourish, but no one delivers sincerely expressionistic pop images the way Haynes does.
(Gus Van Sant did it in Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho.) Like the glittery jewelbox of a spaceship that frames the film, Velvet Goldmine mostly soars. It’s a deviantly satisfying trip.