Criterion Prediction #93: Velvet Goldmine, by Alexander Miller
Title: Velvet Goldmine
Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Toni Collette, Christian Bale, Eddie Izzard
Synopsis: Journalist Arthur Stuart (Bale) is enlisted to investigate the rise and fall of venerated rock idol Brian Slade (Meyers), who faked his assassination ten years prior.
Critique: Velvet Goldmine starts with some extraterrestrial subtext that immediately put a bad taste in my mouth, but the opening credits roll with Brian Eno’s Needle in the Camels Eye, and there’s a charge that evokes the changing tide of music, culture, gender, sex, and of course rock. Writer/director Todd Haynes’s love for his subjects and era is substantial enough to transplant any viewer to seventies Britain. He’s looking back with a degree of nostalgia, but it’s done by creating a new past instead of purely romanticizing what came before. It’s one of the many innovations Haynes lays out for the intricacies at work throughout the film.
Some of his instincts are better than others, but when Velvet Goldmine falters, you still admire the spirited attitude that never lets up. There’s energy bursting at the seams throughout the film and pinning the fashionable chic lavishness onto a Wellesian procedural is a referential gesture that feels like a dare to the director’s creative inhibitions. Luckily for us, this thematic restructuring suits the material, hosting a cycle of flashbacks and accounts surrounding the elusive fate of pop idol Brian Slade. Haynes’s radiant aesthetic is colorful and busy in some respects, and his work can be hard to place, but his rapid visual bravura is so snappy and fluent it’s surprising that Velvet Goldmine didn’t connect with audiences at the time. Could it be that the cultural sentiments of American audiences were less likely to connect with a film about proto-punk/glam rock?
Velvet Goldmine is a tour through a newly conceived, or alternate, history of glam rock. Haynes’s world is one where headline legends like David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop don’t exist. Throughout, we hear covers of and original songs from Roxy Music, T. Rex, as well as the solo work of Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno. The later contributions are just as vital to the transformation of rock music, if not more so, but were less visible than their more flashy counterparts.
Standing in as surrogate rock stars we have John Rhys Meyers, whose Brian Slade has the androgynous, astrally encumbered sexuality of David Bowie, who staged his own assassination to withdraw from the public. Ewan McGregor plays Curt Wild; an Iggy Pop/Lou Reed variation whose relationship with Slade (likely inspired by the rumors of Bowie’s sex life) that inevitably strains their careers.
Bale’s Arthur Stuart character – once a wide-eyed kid whose formative years were spent idolizing Slade and Wild – is now in New York, dispatched to unveil the mystery of his venerated rock star ten years removed from the dematerialization of Slade’s public profile. Stuart is the disquieted but inquisitive Jerry Thompson of the film. Bale’s past stands on equal footing in assembling the nonlinear narrative as a starry-eyed youngster, who’s growing into his own sexuality, finding solace in the outwardly sexualized tenor of the time he grew up.
Velvet Goldmine has a whimsical and sumptuous flavor. Haynes has an eye and ear for exploring the mythic proportions of larger than life rock stars. Dating all the way back to his Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988), and later with the compelling but flawed I’m Not There (2007), he’s displayed a complicated passion for the artists he admires.
Here, he’s empowered in his love letter to glam rock, sexual liberation, and the histrionics of musicians. This reverie doesn’t lose itself in ponderous nostalgia; Velvet Goldmine offers a reimagined past and considers how it applies to our present and future. Elliptical and transcendent but shaped, realized, and contingent on a creative foundation that’s not afraid to explore a modicum of expression, its hyperbolic indulgences don’t always work, but I admire Haynes for making such a compelling movie.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Velvet Goldmine might not have high ratings among critics, but there’s a cultural contingent that embraces the film. Todd Haynes’s presence in the Criterion Collection with Safe is a good step forward; it might be a divisive release, but where’s the fun in playing it safe with critical darlings? Distribution-wise, Velvet Goldmine is available on Blu-Ray and DVD through Miramax, who have shared movies with The Criterion Collection, including Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and The Double Life of Veronique.