By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Velvet Goldmine is a celebration of the '70s, and of the fact that for a fleeting moment there was a seamless blend of lo-fi sci-fi with the gay underground, of the vibrant sexual avant-garde with feather-boa glamour and mascara. It was a moment in which rock & roll was pushed hard into the realm of identity politics, in which subtext and text flipped back and forth constantly, and gender roles were demolished. Sexuality was liquid, and queer had meanings beyond simple faggotry. And the soundtrack - David Bowie, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls, Marc Bolan - was glam.
Directed and written by Todd Haynes, the film - a brainy boy's love letter to that cultural flashpoint - galvanizes us partly because it jolts us into asking, "Could things have ever really been that amazingly free? Could there have been a moment in which the feeling of anything-goes possibility was captured and sold in a glittering, perfumed bottle - and yet still felt like something other than mere product?" There's a dazed hum vibrating in Velvet Goldmine - a sense of spiritual hangover specifically located in scenes set in the '80s - a measured lament that answers, yes, there was such a moment, and it's gone.
It begins with a spaceship dropping the infant Oscar Wilde off on a doorstep in 1854 Dublin, a small, ornate broach pinned to his blanket. The film then cuts to him as a young boy in school, with the teacher asking what he wants to be when he grows up. "I want to be a pop idol," responds Oscar, positioning himself as the founding father of glam. With his dandy aesthetic, his flair for the well-tuned epigram, his manner of cloaking stunning subversiveness in a style-over-matter approach to art and life, his self-destructive bent tucked inside his arrogance, and given the scent of doom and romance that continues to waft from his mythology, Wilde wrote the manual on how to be a rock star. His influence is all over Velvet Goldmine. And, like a Wilde play, the film offers up a cast of characters who spout finely polished lines, celebrate artificiality and use lies to get at the truth.
The story proper is told through the eyes of multiple characters, but it's narrated by 20-something Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a British expatriate living in 1984 America and working for a big-city newspaper. He's been assigned a story on the long-vanished British glam superstar Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who 10 years earlier staged an elaborate publicity stunt to kill off his rock persona, Maxwell Demon, only to have the ploy backfire. The enervated Stuart (Bale's face is a mask of blanked-out despair) sets off on a quest that has the potential for delivering Stuart to himself as much as for recovering the man who was once his idol, a figure very much "inspired" by David Bowie.
The film takes the shape of a knotty Citizen Kane sci-fi musical faux-documentary thriller, one in which the recollections of Slade's first manager; his first wife, Mandy (Toni Collette); a debauched American idol named Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor); and the reporter himself compete for space. When the reporter's journey begins, he finds Mandy - an American girl who crash-landed in London in the late '60s and fashioned herself into a darling of the nightlife - is now a boozy wreck. She recalls that when she first met Slade, she thought she'd found a kindred free spirit. She encouraged Slade's slow shaping of his androgynous persona, her payoff being drugs, money, orgies . . . and unceremonious dismissal. Mandy gets some of the best lines in the film ("It's funny how beautiful people look when they're walking out the door"), including an exchange with Slade that perfectly replicates a conversation from Wilde's own life. Wilde and his friend James Whistler, the painter, were once at a party when Wilde, overhearing a comment made by another guest, remarked, "How I wish I had said that." To which Whistler replied, "You will, Oscar, you will."
Wild, stitched together from the mythologies of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, is a walking tragedy - talented, fuckable, doomed - a muse ripe for the picking. McGregor exudes both fury and an impossibly sad romanticism, making even dopily romantic lines ("The world has changed 'cause you're made of ivory and gold - the curves of your lips rewrite history") go down sweetly. Rhys-Meyers' Slade, in contrast, is all cool surfaces; genuine emotion is the very thing that bores, frightens, intrigues and - in many ways - destroys him. The actor fully inhabits both the sexless alien of the concert stage and the alternately confident and cracking human being who lives - just as theatrically - offstage.
When the two men finally meet and Slade propositions Wild, he does so as both fan and Svengali, innocent and mastermind. A spark of recognition flies between them, flaring into a sexual energy that they feed off as they transcend musical styles and cultural differences to become lovers, and partners in creation. Wild's primal, American blue-collar energy helps transform Slade's fledgling Brit folk-chanteuse into a dazzlingly theatrical, sexually daring creation; it gives him courage as an artist and a man.
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