Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Velvet Goldmine poster

Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine is one of those films I remember making a major impression when I first saw it back in the early 2000s due to its use of nonlinear storytelling, being as much about mood and tone as it is about a plot and it’s dealing with gender and sexuality – not to mention a belting soundtrack of early 70s glam.

Watching it back now and it still has all things though I have to admit not finding it quite such an unabashed joy as I once did.

Telling the story of glam rocker Brian Slade (Johnathan Rhys Meyers), a sort of fictionalised David Bowie figure, through the eyes of fan-cum-journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) a decade on from his disappearance, it’s a fairly simple premise but, as it jumps from era to era and with music video like pseudo dream sequences laced throughout it becomes something rather different.

Velvet Goldmine - Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor
Meyers and McGregor

As said story isn’t really the aim here, though it is for the most part a captivating one, and similarly the characters don’t feel like fully three dimensional creations (though Toni Collette as Slade’s ex-wife Mandy probably gives the best complete performance) but it’s the feel and look of the whole thing that really stands out.

With stylistic flourishes that reference camera techniques of the era in the 1970s flashbacks, including an almost over use of manual zooms, and a 1984 like tone to the ‘present day’ (actually set in 1984) the contrasts are, in parts, impressively stark but I’ll be honest it’s the flashbacks that stick in the mind.

Velvet Goldmine - Toni Collette
Collette

Meyers is glorious as Slade, and his Ziggy Stardust like alter ego Maxwell Demon, and captures both the pomp and glamour, and sleazy fall, of the story excellently while nailing the musical performance sequences (whether he is actually singing or not – it seems to vary).

He’s matched by Ewan McGregor as the Kurt Cobain lookalike Curt Wild who somewhat fuses Iggy Pop and Lou Reed in his character and I think is singing in most of his music scenes, including renditions of a few Stooges classics that blur reality and fantasy admirably.

Velvet Goldmine - Christian Bale
Bale

Bale also does a great job and is surprisingly convincing switching from teenager to adult sides of his role.

All this said it does feel like Haynes, who wrote as well as directed, is possibly throwing too much into the mix for it all to hang together as successfully as it might.

As it goes on it feels like every line and movement is a reference to something from Oscar Wilde to Citizen Kane to A Hard Day’s Night (and I’m sure I didn’t spot all of these) while the sense of mystery threaded throughout focusing on a jewel that supposedly originally belonged to Wilde, and comes into things here through the mysterious figure of Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland), remains just a little too cryptic right up to the end.

Velvet Goldmine - Eddie Izzard and Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Izzard and Meyers

Elsewhere Eddie Izzard is clearly having a whale of a time as Slade’s manager while the sexual politics treads some fine lines of acceptability a couple of decades on, but its general message seems to be that of being yourself despite what the world might throw at you is, of course, admirable even if its handled in a way that’s not as convincing as it might be.

Despite the flaws I still enjoyed revisiting Velvet Goldmine again now, and it’s great seeing Placebo make a cameo with their storming cover of T.Rex’s Twentieth Century Boy and the soundtrack is irresistible, while just seeing Meyers and McGregor in their, so to speak, prime is always going to be a treat (a few scenes I’m sure led to a number of ‘awakenings’…) and for fans of glam rock this is a must to experience and just let happen around you with, as the opening title card suggests, the volume turned up loud.

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