Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/16/05.
The early 1970s was an era where the whole counterculture, hippie movement was finally burning itself out. Replacing that whole era for a while but huge in Britain was the glam-rock scene filled with glitter clothing, platform shoes, glamourous tastes, and an openness to sexuality. Leading that wave during that time were the likes of David Bowie, Lou Reed, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Gary Glitter, Iggy Pop & the Stooges, Slade, Mott the Hoople, and many more. When glam rock ended, so did many of its stars while some like Bowie, Reed, Pop, Roxy Music, and Brian Eno moved on to make influential music from the years to come. In the early 90s in Britain, a glam revival of sorts came around that would reach to the American underground. Finally, a film on glam rock was ready to be made from American director Todd Haynes with his 1998 film Velvet Goldmine.
Named after the David Bowie B-side, Velvet Goldmine is based on the glam rock scene of the 1970s about a pop singer named Brian Slade who faked an assassination that ruined his career. Ten years later, a journalist investigates what has happened as he looks into Slade's rise and fall and his many cohorts including an American rocker named Curt Wild. The story by Haynes and his editor James Lyon that was later scripted by Haynes, many of the stories of Velvet Goldmine was based on the lives of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Brian Eno. While the film’s intention was to capture the glam rock scene, its result is an uneven and excessive film that has several moments but doesn't gel. With a cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Christian Bale, Toni Collette, Eddie Izzard, Emily Woof, and Michael Feast. Velvet Goldmine is a film that glitters with its stylization but fails to deliver fully in its intentions.
The film begins with a narration by Janet McTeer as she talks about the arrival of Oscar Wilde into the world with a pin he had when he was a baby coming down from outer space. After proclaiming to the world that he wants to be a pop idol, the green-marble pin he had came into the hands more than 100 years later into a child who would reinvent himself as a glam rocker named Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland). It's 1974 at the height of the movement as fans run to the stage to see their hero Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) in his Maxwell Demon persona. With rumors that Slade was going to be assassinated at the show, witnessing the concert was a young man named Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) who sees Slade get shot.
Ten years later, Arthur is now a journalist in New York City who has been asked by his editor (Don Fellows) to do a piece on the tenth anniversary of Slade's shooting stunt that turned out to be a hoax. For Arthur, he had to go back to his memory as an adolescent, something he wants to forget since he was a huge fan of Slade while feeling sexually confused during the 1970s in Britain. He remembers the movement very well as kids acted bisexual as part of a trend and he often gotten scolded for buying Slade albums because it's for pansies. He meets up with Slade’s first and former manager Cecil (Michael Feast) who talks about how he met Brian Slade during a concert at the top club in Britain during the late 60s/early 70s called the Sombrero. He met Slade and his American wife Mandy (Toni Collette) who was a socialite that talked in a British accent.
Cecil talked about how talented Brian was but at a festival show with a hippie audience, Slade's personal and cosmic songs were trashed. Brian's wardrobe of wearing a dress also gave him trouble as he complained about being slagged until he saw wild American rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) performing with glitter and rubbing baby oil while flicking off the angry audience as he exposes himself. Slade was shocked but in awe of Curt's uncompromising approach to rock. Cecil knew that Curt Wild had given him something, especially with Curt's troubled background of shock therapy and claims that he was raised by wolves. Brian changed his presentation in front of a new management group where he meets a flamboyant manager in Jerry Devine (Eddie Izzard) who decides to manage Brian with Cecil now in the lurch as Devine makes Brian a star.
Arthur then meets up with Mandy who gives him her story of how she met Brian and his first meeting with Jack Fairy, where he stole Fairy's pin and became a star. With Brian on the rise with his band Venus in Furs, a new assistant arrives in Shannon (Emily Woof) as Brian wants to use his success to meet and revitalize the career of Curt Wild. He and Jerry go to America where they offered Curt a new deal where Jerry wants to make him a star for publicity while Brian has fallen for Curt. Amidst the chaos and excess of the era, Arthur remembers that while masturbating to a record back in the 70s forced him to be kicked out of his home. Arthur finds a new home with a band named the Flaming Creatures (the band Placebo) as the scene begins to decline while Curt and Brian's relationship falters.
Mandy then recalls the final glam rock concert where Curt performed as Arthur remembers he meets Curt as well as see Brian, who makes one of his final public appearances where he and Mandy had already broken up due to Brian's reliance on drugs. Then as Arthur continues to investigate, he learns of what has happened to Brian Slade and who has become where he tries to reach Curt Wild for information. In the end, Arthur begins to confront his past while pondering his own future.
While the film has some wonderful performance sequences that are done throughout the film, the film does suffer in its exaggeration and uneven script. While many of the film's glam rock sequences have its moments, it loses consistency when it shifts from 1970s glam to the more gray, corporate world of the 1980s when Arthur Stuart investigates his story. The Oscar Wilde subplot in the film also seems to be a distraction from the story and when the film moves into the third act where Arthur begins to recall his memory at the final glam rock show and reveal Brian's aftermath, the film loses momentum. While Haynes continues to bring in some great ideas and camera shots, his film suffers due to its uneven script.
The film's faltering script doesn't effect the film's look thanks to Maryse Alberti's colorful cinematography with its contrasting look of yellowish scenes in the dance hall sequences of Cecil's meeting with Slade along with the glam rock moments filled with color. The film's glam look is helped not just by production designer Christopher Hobbs and art director Andrew Munro for capturing the contrasting look of 70s glam and 80s gray world but also costume designer Sandy Powell for her detailed look of the 70s glam rock clothing. With editor James Lyon giving the film a nicely paced feel for the film's non-linear approach, he couldn't help the momentum that got lost in the third act.
One great aspect of the film that made the movie memorable is the music with a wonderful score from Coen Brothers longtime composer Carter Burwell along with original tracks from Brian Eno, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, Gary Glitter, T. Rex, and Iggy Pop. A few of those tracks were performed by various bands that included Placebo, Nathan Larson, Shudder to Think, Pulp, and the Venus in Furs band that included vocal appearances from Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Ewan McGregor, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers that included several members like Andy Mackay of Roxy Music, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, and Bernard Butler of Suede while other acts included appearances from Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley and Thurston Moore.
The casting is well done with some fine performances from Placebo and many of the musicians who played in the band. Emily Woof is wonderful in her small role as Shannon, the assistant turned confidant for Brian Slade while Michael Feast is excellent in his calm role as Cecil, Brian's first manager. Eddie Izzard gives a wonderfully flamboyant and sleazy performance as the Tony DeFries caricature of Jerry Devine with his big-time obsession and star-making power. Toni Collette also delivers a fabulous performance as Mandy Slade from her vain, elegance in the 70s sequences to the burnout and calm approach of her character in the 80s as Collette brings a complexity and depth to her performance. Ewan McGregor is amazing in his role as Curt Wild, a mix of Iggy Pop/Kurt Cobain with a bit of Lou Reed & Mick Ronson, that shows McGregor's wild side and comedic antics as he not only belt out those great Iggy Pop songs but proves his performing power. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers delivers an excellent performance whenever he is singing and on the stage but when he is acting, Meyers comes off as a bit stiff in the role. Christian Bale really shines in a great supporting role of the anguished Arthur Stuart as a man trying to confront his past and sexuality while bringing an innocence and angst in the 70s sequences while some confusion and weariness to his scenes in the 80s.
While Velvet Goldmine got good reviews including a special Artistic Contribution prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, to the eyes of glam rock purists, the film was trashed. When Haynes originally presented the film to David Bowie, the rock legend was unamused as he refused to have his songs used in the film where as a result, led to Bowie to creating his own musical on his own Ziggy Stardust persona back in the early 70s. While Lou Reed, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, and Iggy Pop lent their music to the film, many (except for Pop, who hasn't seen it) were not happy with the film and Eno and his former Roxy Music mate Bryan Ferry felt the film was overly exaggerated. Glam rock photographer Mick Rock and Bowie's producer Tony Visconti also didn't like the film for its portrayal while 80s pop singer Boy George felt insulted by the film, especially since he was a teen during those times.
Despite its flawed script and lack of momentum in the third act, Velvet Goldmine is still a worthy film from Todd Haynes. With fine performances from Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale, Toni Collette, and Eddie Izzard, the film has something to offer for glam rock fans but don't count on the purists to like the film. The film does bring in some great moments and scenes that are memorable thanks to Todd Haynes' unconventional approach to storytelling. Though his previous film, Safe and 2002's Far from Heaven show more of his directing talents, Velvet Goldmine is still a worthy film to see.
Todd Haynes Films: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story - Poison - Dottie Gets Spanked - Safe - Far from Heaven - I'm Not There - Mildred Pierce (TV miniseries) - Carol - Wonderstruck - Dark Waters (2019 film) - The Velvet Underground - The Auteurs #3: Todd Haynes
© thevoid99 2011