Published October 1, 1998
Velvet Goldmine, written and directed by Todd Haynes, comes with the following “Director’s Statement”
Velvet Goldmine is a valentine to the sounds and images that erupted in and around London in the early 1970’s: to Brian Ferry, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed — and the extraordinary inversions they imposed on our notions of the performance, sexuality and identity. Glam rock was the product of the last truly progressive decade we’ve seen in the West — a climate of great possibility and openness–that resulted in important social movements, amazing cinema, and some fantastic music. And because glam rock would challenge, with style and wit, any leaning toward ‘the natural’ in society, drawing heavily as it did from underground gay culture, the film commemorates Oscar Wilde as the original glam rocker, the one who knew to speak the truth only through the most exquisite of lies.
That will give you some idea of what a mess the movie is. In fact, it actually begins with Oscar Wilde, the Wilde home in Dublin, a foundling and a jewel left with it and young Oscar standing up in his school at age about six and announcing his ambition to become “a pop idol.”
This, I suppose, is meant to be “magic realism” — only without the realism. It is the kind of thing that could only happen in a rock video where all culture is a vast smorgasbord for spoiled children to pick over at will, taking one bite out of everything. Haynes goes on to tell us that “to me this was a celebration of the Oscar Wilde tradition played out in pop culture. Glam rock seems a direct application of what Wilde was trying to do in literature — to kick the pants off the romantic tradition that preceded him.” It’s a pity then that he didn’t choose to kick the pants off the tradition that preceded him — which was glam rock itself. This was presumably because it spent so much of its time with its pants off anyway.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Brian Slade, who is supposed to be a British, David Bowie-like star whose career does a sudden nosedive after he fakes his own death on stage, and such plot as there is involves the Citizen Kane conceit of a reporter called Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) trying to track down what ever happened to poor, forgotten Brian Slade all of ten years later. I wonder if, in fact, it has ever happened that a pop star of that magnitude has sunk from sight entirely? It seems to me that the worst he could expect would be to go on living in a sort of twilight of fame, still known to millions and so able to earn a crust playing in local concerts here and there. But, say it did happen that, having disappeared, Superstar A had metamorphosed, as he does here, into Superstar B — that is Tommy Stone, a Bob Geldof type of the 1980s, would he (a) want to hide the secret of his true identity — surely it could only have done him good in terms of publicity, which is everything in that business — or (b) become a Reaganite conservative? Here our credulity is being strained to the breaking point.
Of course it is not supposed to be credible but symbolic — of the classic moment in all rock-melodrama, the Sellout. It is also characteristic of rock fanatics to write about their enthusiasm in quasi-ideological language, as it there were vast political significances to really quite minor differences between one piggish and illiterate pop star and the next. Haynes tells us, for instance, that the Mods of the 60s in Britain were the forerunners of the Glam rock crowd because they cared about their dress. Brian was an early member who “despised the hypocrisy of the peace and love generation” and wanted his music to appeal to “misfits and outcasts: his revolution would be a sexual one.” Unlike, you understand, that of the Woodstock generation.
It is always good to see the work of Toni Collette, who plays Brian’s girlfriend, later wife, Mandy, and Ewan McGregor, who plays his American rival and sometime partner, Curt Wild. But it is strange that there is no sense of the difference between the British and American characters. The ostensible American pop star is supposed to have been born in an “aluminium” trailer in upper Michigan, which has never heard of aluminium. McGregor, a Scotsman, makes little effort to sound American, and nor does Miss Collette, an Australian who plays an American pretending to be English, which makes for a lot of confusion. Perhaps this blurring of national identities is all part of being in the weird symbolic landscape of Youth country where nothing is supposed to look real and where Oscar Wilde is a pop star.