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Ziggy, Iggy, and Todd.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JUNE 1, 1999:  In the early 1970s, the late music writer Lester Bangs got a chance to sit down for a chat with Dick Clark (who, given the odd currents of pop culture, probably seemed even less hip then than he does now). Bangs, a cheerleader for the transgressive, impishly asked the "American Bandstand" host what he thought of all the emerging gay and bisexual rock stars—David Bowie, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, and so on. Clark got a worried look on his face and said, "Do you think this is going to be widespread?"

It was, but only briefly. It had its day and then faded. (Bowie and Jagger married supermodels, after all.) Although the past 25 years have seen major civil rights gains for gays and lesbians, they've never produced another moment when sexual ambiguity seemed so cool, so hip, so alluring.

That's the moment Todd Haynes captures in Velvet Goldmine (1998, R), a strange and vividly personal tribute to the glam rock era. The film is muddled, and a working knowledge of rock history definitely helps. But it's also colorful, energetic, and full of ideas. Although it begins with a fanciful prologue involving Oscar Wilde and a spaceship, it's set in an expressionistic version of 1980s America (Haynes makes explicit all of the Reagan era's Orwellian tendencies). Journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is assigned to do a "whatever happened to" story on a '70s English rock star named Brian Slade, leading to an interlocking series of flashbacks involving Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), an American rocker named Curt Wild (a raw, sexy Ewan McGregor), and Arthur himself, who was at the time a sexually confused young fan.

Haynes has lots of fun with rock mythology—Slade is based on Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie, and Wild is a ringer for Iggy Pop, with whom Bowie recorded several albums. Haynes makes the two of them lovers, which might horrify some of Pop's macho fans but is perfectly in keeping with the film's sense of liberation. And liberation—from gender, sexuality, and identity—is both the subject and the saving grace of Velvet Goldmine. Despite its many indulgences (e.g. an odd Citizen Kane fixation), what makes it work is an unfettered sense of possibility. Part political parable, part pop music fantasia, Haynes' vision is a cluttered but endlessly imaginative one.

Bowie has made plenty of films in his own right, of course. One of the best is Nicolas Roeg's disquieting science fiction allegory The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, R). The Thin White Duke is typecast as (what else?) an alien seduced by very earthly temptations. In its evocation of moldering decadence, it's every bit as 1970s as any glam rock opus.

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