Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Velvet Goldmine

By Michael Henningsen

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  So many separate, salient points can be made about what, exactly, screenwriter/director Todd (Poison, Safe) Haynes' new film is at its most basic, that it would be a waste of time (not to mention an aesthetically unappealing checklist) to attempt to note them all. Suffice to say that Velvet Goldmine is a startling cinematic achievement, especially given its focus: '70s British glam rock.

Perhaps the most important element of the film is its character construction. Centered around the lives of mythical glam rockers Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), his American inspiration and counterpart Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) and journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), Velvet Goldmine succeeds in underscoring the hedonistic excess of the short-lived British glam rock era without sugarcoating, Disney-fying or sensationalizing it--the era was, afterall, the most sensational moment in rock history to begin with. The miracle of the film's characterizations lies in the fact that they are, for the most part, composites based on some of the most flamboyant, complex icons of the time--Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Marc Bolan. Who in rock music, before or since, is as thoroughly engaging in persona as any of the above? No one. Still, Haynes' characters come frighteningly close, despite their existence solely in his imagination.

In a sense, Velvet Goldmine is biographical--there are countless intentional references to all the important '70s glam rock figures right down to managers, groupies and the corporate entities who, in their quest to capitalize on it, essentially signed glam rock's death certificate. In another very real sense, Velvet Goldmine defines the contemporary musical. The film is driven by the music it dissects, most of which consists of glam rock classics covered by Shudder to Think and studio combos featuring everyone from ex-Roxy Music saxophonist Andy MacKay to Mike Watt and Thurston Moore.

Surprisingly, the film manages to trace glam from an Oscar Wildeian perspective through an Orwellian vision of the future. It begins by telling us that glam rock was born of Wilde's intentions of skinning the romantic period that preceded him and ends in a colorless, repressed 1984-era New York City constructed of what the '70s glam generation might have foreseen. In between, an intentionally convoluted story unfolds, driving characters together and apart in various arenas--sexuality, artistic freedom and excess, rebellion and, finally, an attempt to make sense of it all.

On the surface, we are led through Brian Slade's career, his various interactions and ultimate fate. But along the way, other dynamics and characters emerge in both a nonclassical love story and a quasi-fictional historical account of a largely forgotten, yet important musical era.

In 1984, Stuart, working for a New York newspaper, is assigned to investigate and write a story memorializing the 10th anniversary of Slade's failed publicity stunt, one in which he staged his own death, only to see his career plummet in the viscous aftermath. The investigative journey leads Stuart on a bruised trip through his own past (we quickly realize that he was in London, shyly immersed in the glam era as it happened), resulting in as much a story about his own involvement and subsequent scars as the one he's been assigned to write. He talks to the players he can find--Slade's ex-wife Mandy (Toni Collette), his first manager Cecil and, finally, Curt Wild. Of interest here is the fact that, save for Cecil, Stuart has known his interviewees in the past, even though they do not outwardly recognize him. By the end of the interview process, Stuart believes he has pieced together the mysterious truth about what eventually became of Slade, but not before his editor kills the story in favor of another in a scene that provides a rather interesting plot twist.

Ultimately, though, Slade's fate rides shotgun to Stuart's bouts of painful remembrance and the intricate stitching of his own story. Glam rock was sold--and almost simultaneously burned--out in the end. Stuart, on the other hand, achieves a unique closure that effectively erases years of denial and self doubt. And in that context, Velvet Goldmine is as impressive a human drama as any film of its kind.


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