“Velvet Goldmine” – Reflecting on the 25th Anniversary of Todd Haynes' Glam Rock Classic | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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“Velvet Goldmine” – Reflecting on the 25th Anniversary of Todd Haynes’ Glam Rock Classic

The Film First Came Out on October 23, 1998

Oct 23, 2023
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Perhaps it was David Bowie’s refusal to cooperate with director Todd Haynes which set the latter’s third feature film on its ultimate course toward greatness. Despite the efforts of believers Michael Stipe (himself among the film’s producers) and Kim Gordon to persuade Bowie otherwise, the rock icon ultimately declined to participate in the film’s production, denying Haynes the rights to such classic tracks as “Lady Stardust,” “All the Young Dudes,” and “Lady Grinning Soul,” and prompting him to explore more elaborate creative avenues. Having proven himself a great experimentalist provocateur a decade prior with striking cult classic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (a brief cinematic effort which found the young director at odds with Richard Carpenter, who promptly sued him), Haynes had since established himself as one of the most daringly innovative filmmakers of his time, and his paean to 1970’s rock culture was destined to stand leagues apart from similar efforts, though the experience was far more visceral than one might have imagined. Velvet Goldmine intoxicated its niche audience in manners unprecedented upon its release in 1998, serving as a personal statement on sexuality and idolatry, as well as a tantalizing portrait of that briefly lived, hyper-luminous movement in early-’70s youth culture, known otherwise as “glam,” as only Haynes could depict it.

More a non-linear collage of dreamlike vignettes detailing the rise and fall of the glam movement through the triumphs, tribulations, and eventual removal of English rock deity Brian Slade, Velvet Goldmine’s fragmentary nature seeks to dismantle the myth of rock and roll divinity and may evoke within viewers most familiar with Haynes’ more experimental output a sense of awe. The film’s top-notch cast, which includes Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale, Toni Collette, and Eddie Izzard, is instrumental in bringing to life Haynes’ meticulous ’70s rock fantasia, such strong performances underscoring the story’s overwhelming sense of psychosexual phantasmagoria with a consistent air of empathy and intimacy. Meyers and McGregor are especially great here, both actors embodying either end of the glam spectrum through their respective portrayals of Brian Slade and Curt Wild. Through Slade, the sleek British glam of Bowie, Marc Bolan, and Bryan Ferry, which idealized a distinctly baroque pursuit of beauty and pleasure, is acquainted with its often grungy American cousin, pioneered by the likes of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, as personified by McGregor’s bestial Wild. Slade’s delicately refined sway is often consumed by Wild’s primitivity, born from the “aluminum trailer parks of Michigan” and amplified by attempted electroshock conversion treatments at a young age, the scrappy Midwesterner’s raw power instantly captivating the boyish Brit. What ensues is a passionate, albeit doomed, romance of epic proportions, as the two stars grapple with their newfound fame and the inevitable dissolution of personhood.

Bale’s sympathetic Arthur Stuart, a humble journalist and former fan inhabiting a gloomily dystopian New York City in 1984, investigates the complex history of Slade’s brief career, returning to his native England and interviewing various figures from the elusive rocker’s past. Stuart’s planned article centers around Slade’s portrayal of glittery extraterrestrial messiah Maxwell Demon, which set the stage for his rise to superstardom and public downfall, culminating in his onstage “assassination” shortly thereafter. Stuart’s journey toward discovery provides the narrative with yet another angle, as imperative to rock mythology as the music itself: a fan’s perspective. Through Slade’s music, an adolescent Stuart was afforded a reprieve from the bleak working class conservatism of his homelife, a means of exploring his own sexuality and expanding his horizons, as he became engulfed within the glam scene and slipped away from his parents’ world. There is a tenderness to Stuart lacking in Slade and Wild, his wide-eyed vulnerability and hunger for greener pastures maintaining its purity in the wake of an increasingly nihilistic era. Of course, the greater tragedy is revealed in Stuart’s realization that Slade, having faked his own murder a decade prior, has reinvented himself once more, reemerging as unrecognizably fascistic corporate pop star Tommy Stone. This smug, bleached-blonde emblem of Reaganite greed and yuppie disillusionment represents Slade’s symbolic “selling out” of the glam scene and its post-hippie idealism, his abandonment of such artistic promise, and callous betrayal of adoring fans such as Stuart. However, a shadowy group of industry executives is insinuated to have derailed Stuart’s article, the writer swiftly reassigned to cover, of all things, Tommy Stone’s current tour.

Simultaneously an adoring homage to both ’70s and ’90s adolescence and a biting satire of rock and roll pretension, Velvet Goldmine is one of its decade’s most significant films, having gained a loyal cult following in the years since its release. Haynes’ masterful exploration of popular culture and its psychosocial effect upon youth, whether through the aesthetic relationship between the physical album and the listener’s experience of its music, the consumerist perception of pop culture as intellectual pornography, or the societal mirror provided by decadent movements, offers much to contemplate. While the Bowie/Bolan/Pop/Reed influences are most certainly present (look no further than the film’s opening disclaimer: “Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume,” a less than subtle nod to the text found on the sleeve of Bowie’s own The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), Velvet Goldmine is not the straightforward rock biopic one might expect, although it remains the glam scene’s finest cinematic representation to date. Haynes’ signature eccentricities (such as likening the birth of Oscar Wilde, and by association, the advent of glam, to extraterrestrial phenomena) place the film in a league of its own, furthering the experimental vision of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, while also paving the way for Haynes’ triumphant 2007-released Bob Dylan fantasy I’m Not There.

Haynes has since proven himself capable of crafting more straightforward mainstream dramas, though his pop cultural fever dreamscapes remain his true masterpieces. Especially glorious, Velvet Goldmine is a music enthusiast’s paradise: a sweeping survey of glam rock’s international influence that is at once artful, indulgent, elegant, and weird. As a director, Haynes views modern culture through an intriguing lens, translating his tragic sense of romanticism into a luscious, brightly-hued afterworld in which desire and destiny collide. A product of both naked fate and intricate conspiracy, Brian Slade’s legendary career and subsequent evolution mirror those of many rock idols, who find themselves often sinking or swimming throughout the decades. Bowie was sensibly skeptical of Haynes’ screenplay, as it embodied the good, the bad, and the ugly of the former’s often fabled biography. One would like to believe, however, that the late Starman’s opinion of Velvet Goldmine eventually softened, as Haynes’ effort, a deliriously enchanting labor of love, pays tribute to the musical icon in ways inimitable.

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