Brilliant, queer writer/director Todd Hayne’s heartbreaking work of staggering genius, Velvet Goldmine, is named for a David Bowie song that was originally intended to be included on his epochal concept album/rock opera, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, but was eliminated early on due to what were considered to be overly suggestive lyrics about homosexual activity. The title is absolutely ideal. Just as its namesake is a “lost” Bowie song, so does the film present a “behind-the-curtain” look at a Bowiesque glam rock megagod. Bowie himself eventually altered the lyrics to make the genders of the characters more ambiguous and to therefore allow the song to be more palatable to a mainstream audience, which adds another interesting bit of relevance to the film,Velvet Goldmine, because it deals not only with the glam rock era, but the death of glam rock and how yesterday’s rebels can sell out and become cogs in today’s machine.
Velvet Goldmine is a dazzling, kaleidoscopic fever dream of a film that threads fact, fiction, conjecture, fairy tale, literary and cinematic references, and music–glorious, wondrous, breathtaking music–into a dense tapestry, woven of the dreams, nightmares, and delusions of the glam rock overlords, Bowie, Iggy, etc., and their adoring fans. Heavily influenced by Citizen Kane, the main narrative thrust of the film–if such a whirling, twisting roller-coaster ride of a film that incorporates everything from musical and fantasy sequences to copious Oscar Wilde quotations and which bounces and zigzags through time and space can be referred to as “narrative”–is that of Arthur (Christian Bale), a reporter in 1984 who was once a glam rock fanatic, investigating what happened to his idol, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) after Slade’s starry career imploded subsequent to faking his own on-stage murder in the 1970s.
The film progresses as a sort of collage of memories, impressions, and thoughts brought about while interviewing various important people in Slade’s life. In its spinning, chaotic wonder, it somehow manages to perfectly capture the giddy, ostentatious, glittery decadence of the glam rock era, and reveal a great deal about Slade and his muse/possible lover, Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), while at the same time, revealing nothing at all. Velvet Goldmine is a film about how people who live their lives through carefully constructed artifice, can never truly be known; they will mesmerize and tantalize but always elude one’s grasp.
The aforementioned Oscar Wilde was one of Bowie’s inspirations. The philosophy of the glam rock movement, was, in fact, largely influenced by that espoused in writings of his such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, which seems to value beauty and illusion over depth and meaning. Wilde’s flamboyant, dandy, and gender-bending affectations naturally provided sustenance to their crusade against dull convention. What they may not have paid attention to is the nuance that Dorian Gray satirizes this obsession with physical aesthetics as much as it revels in it. Dorian Gray is a delicate, beautiful young man who loses his soul and humanity in his quest for eternal youth. Velvet Goldmine presents Brian Slade as a preening, strutting counterpart to Dorian Gray, and does so very deliberately by incorporating Oscar Wilde into the actual text of the story. Like Dorian Gray, Slade will surrender to his nasty little demons–in his case, his stage alter-ego, Maxwell Demon–and thereby lose everything he holds dear.
The more one knows about Bowie specifically and glam rock in general, the more one will get out of this film. For example, one might not realize that the nightmarish, fictional version of 1984 presented in Velvet Goldmine, inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, is a reference not only to Bowie’s obsession with post-apocalyptic, dystopic futures (a thread that ran throughout much of his work), but the fact that he had once planned on writing a rock opera based on the classic novel. When he failed to get permission from Orwell’s widow, he removed the specific references to 1984 and transformed what he had written into the album, Diamond Dogs. The references to Big Brother and other such nuances, however, remained intact. Consequently, this film’s 1984 setting is not 1984 as it actually was, but 1984 as Bowie and Orwell once imagined it, a grim place on the verge of collapse, run by a corrupt government that has eyes everywhere and enforces mindless conformity. The fact that Bowie himself sold out in the 1980s and that Velvet Goldmine‘s President Reynolds doesn’t seem vastly different from the actual 1980s’ President Reagan are two more of the film’s delicious ironies.
Whether or not one is well-versed in glam rock history and trivia, however (I am far from an expert, myself), Velvet Goldmine is monumentally successful because it so gorgeously conveys glam’s magic and its glitz and its odd mix of the divine and the seedy that even if 75% of the film goes over the viewer’s head (I’m certain it did mine), one can find oneself completely under its spell and compelled to watch over and over again, to work through its myriad puzzles and treasures and to savor the bold, fearless performances of Meyers, MacGregor, Bale, and the marvelous Toni Collette as Slade’s ex-wife, fallen from glory. Part-musical, part-fantasy-docudrama, part-audiovisual magical mystery tour, Velvet Goldmine is a glam rock dream brought to life–a journey through the looking glass that questions whether any stars are ever more than so much smoke and mirrors.
This review first appeared on Rob Will Review.