Directed by Todd Haynes. Starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor, Toni Collette. (1998, R, 127 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Nov. 6, 1998
Early-Seventies glam-rock culture, that brief but spectacular global explosion of polymorphous sexuality, nelly fashions, and Byronic libertinism writ large, is the setting for Todd Haynes' wildly original new film, Velvet Goldmine. For rock fans who were either too young to experience glam the first time around or who found its posh, crushed velvet surfaces too incompatible with the prevailing hippie culture's denim-and-chambray aesthetics, this film portrays with eerie precision what it was like to be there. But in keeping with the stylistic brinksmanship of his subject, Haynes (Safe; Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) has a larger, more audacious agenda than mere documentary excellence. Glam, he implies, was not a special case but simply the latest of many romantic, style-intensive cultural movements throughout history. Starting with a fanciful opening scene in which aliens deposit the infant Oscar Wilde on a grimy London door stoop, there's an explicit assertion that the Wildes, Baudelaires, and Marc Bolans in our midst are made of finer, more ethereal stuff than the gray mass of men. They shine like stars because that's what they were born to be. In a characteristically whimsical gesture, Haynes nicks the Citizen Kane plot device of a reporter investigating the details of a mysterious celebrity's passing. Here, the reporter (Bale) is doing a where-is-he-now piece about a Bowie-like English glitter idol named Brian Slade (Rhys-Meyers) who ended his career 10 years earlier by faking his own murder onstage. The quest not only puts him in touch with several worse-for-wear glam era survivors but also reimmerses him in poignant memories of his own days as a sexually confused glitter kid. Though Haynes' nominal focus is the mesmerizing figure of Slade, Slade is -- aptly enough for a man who believes surfaces are all-important -- little more than a vivid, epigram-spouting holographic image. To some extent, the same is true of American underground rocker Curt Wild (McGregor, doing an Iggy Pop/Lou Reed amalgam to scary perfection), a dionysian madman who becomes an obsession for Slade, first inspiring his career, then threatening to destroy it. But then, neither is really the central character. Instead, the film's true anchor is Bale's touching performance as one of those fans who's not just transported by the theatrical conjury of rock shamans like Slade and Wild, but transformed into an honorary alien himself. In terms of sheer, unrelenting visual invention, Velvet Goldmine is a wonder. Like the glam stars it celebrates, it leaves no visual detail untouched by the hand of inspired high artifice. And have I mentioned that this movie really rocks, bursting from the screen like a magenta hurricane with great, half-forgotten tunes (and covers) by glam and glam-fellow-traveler acts like Roxy Music, Brian Eno, the New York Dolls, and Lou Reed? Yet for all these virtues the most exciting thing about this film is its sheer nerviness. Velvet Goldmine dares to be campy and fey without ever sacrificing its heart or emotional intensity. With irreverent glee it cheekily quotes from iconic film masterpieces (in several scenes, twinkly showers of glitter from the stars echo the snow imagery from the aforementioned Citizen Kane) yet never descends to empty wiseass. This is, in short, a film that manages to feel wildly spontaneous while developing a grand historical vision in which absinthe-sipping poets maudit stand cape-to-feather-boa with mascaraed glitter rockers and gaze at the night sky, seeing stars that are hidden from the rest of us.