One of the great things about film fandom is that it leads to earlier or more obscure films that may not have found their audience at the time. For one generation Christian Bale is Batman and Ewan McGregor is Obi-Wan Kenobi. Fans of their work that go exploring will eventually see them in Velvet Goldmine. Having sex with each other.
Todd Haynes’s film Velvet Goldmine is a faux-David Bowie biopic that tracks the glam rock phenomenon from birth to end and its exploration of pan-sexuality and how that generation transition into the Reagan and Thatcher 80’s by using the structure of Citizen Kane. It’s also a rock and roll movie par excellence. Toni Collette, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Eddie Izzard co-star in this trip down glam-rock lane. Our review of Velvet Goldmine on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
The film begins with Oscar Wilde, who is coded as the first Glam rock star and a space alien delivered from the heavens (seriously). From there it introduces Brian Slade (Rhys Meyers) and his alter-ego Maxwell Demon (aka Ziggy Stardust) as he does the show that ends with him being assassinated. It turns out that the shooting was a hoax, which ends Slade’s career. Ten years later, reporter Arthur Stuart (Bale) is assigned to write about the shooting, and the assignment allows him to reflect on his life in England. He was a fan turned on by Brian Slade and didn’t know what to make of it.
Stuart goes about finding out the story of Slade’s life and starts with his first manager Cecil (Michael Feast), who tells of Brian’s early years and his developing style. At first Slade embraces old movie star glamour and sings more melodramatic songs, but something comes alive in Slade when he sees Curt Wild (McGregor). Curt enters doing a cover of “TV Eye” and is meant to an amalgam of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. His crazed energy gives Brian an idea how to break through, especially after he gets noticed by Jerry Devine (Eddie Izzard). Slade becomes a pop icon, and when pressed espouses that he’s a bisexual along with his wife Mandy (Collette). He costumes as a woman, often dressed like a lizard, and creates Maxwell Demon, who like Oscar Wilde was delivered from outer space to give us his art (which then incorporates Bowie’s role in The Man Who Fell to Earth).
Cecil leads Stuart to Mandy – now the ex-wife – who also has an interesting perspective on that time. The former Slades met at a club and fell in love, but Brian is a slippery creature who sees sex as a selling point and weapon. She tells of how Brian brought Curt over to England and how then everything fell apart. And as Start makes progress on what happened to Slade, he unfolds his own autobiography as he comes to terms with his own youth spent in the shadows of glam, and as someone who found his sexuality watching Slade’s bisexual antics and then hid them away once he got older.
Todd Haynes – like Brian De Palma – studied semiotics, and it shows in his work. Often he takes the form of other artists and interprets them for himself, either in pieces (I’m Not There, which apes Richard Lester, D.A. Pennebaker and Frederico Fellini) or in whole (Far From Heaven, which is an homage to Douglas Sirk). In Velvet Goldmine there are obvious references, with the structure lifted straight from Orson Welles, but never without purpose or commentary. In Kane, the reporter visits one man in a hospital, but when that happens here it’s given the subtext of AIDS. Those words are never uttered, but Haynes confirms as much in the commentary, and it’s one of the great subtle notes of the film. He also turns the reporter into a character to which the events reflect on, whereas in Welles film the reporter is simply a plot device (not that I’m knocking that masterpiece).
Velvet Goldmine is a dense text, though, and my favorite Haynes films – perhaps because it’s so playful. In its way, it’s like Radiohead’s The Bends in its attempt to combine the serious interests with a more pop approach and it works like gangbusters. Perhaps it’s that the music (either of period or recreated by artists like Thom Yorke and Shudder to Think) is so infectious – if Trainspotting is now out of contention for being over the line, it’s the best soundtrack of the last fifteen years.
But at the heart of the film is Haynes’s thesis about what happened to Bowie and the rise and fall of homosexuality in pop culture in the 70’s and 80’s. The film was originally intended to be something of a Bowie bio-pic, but when David Bowie himself scuttled that notion it became freer to comment on the man himself. As such, there’s no sense that Slade is definitely of one sexual orientation or another, which works to Bowie’s mythos and what it means to be that sort of rock god. It allows the performers to be at once a representation of these icons of the movement, but also exist outside of them. McGregor in particular gives the flavor of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and – especially with the hair – Kurt Cobain. It also allows Haynes to be critical of Bowie in a way that bio-pics often eschew. It’s hard to imagine Haynes could have said as many damning things about who Bowie became in the 1980’s if it were an official adaptation of his life. And that freedom is felt in the material, which then becomes about Arthur’s character, who is finally able to see a representation of himself in the mainstream, and also chart what made it so interesting (as the next evolution of pop music) and what made it go away.
Lionsgate’s Blu-ray is presented in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 surround. The film was put out early in DVD history and was never released anamorphically, so this is a huge step up from that release in terms of picture and sound quality. The film looks gorgeous in this 1080p transfer, and if you’re a fan there’s no reason not to upgrade. Extras are limited to a commentary and a trailer for the film, but the commentary is new, and Haynes is very thoughtful on the track, reading quotes from the stars and digs deep in the track.