Todd Haynes’ rock n’ roll drama Velvet Goldmine is not just a queer cult classic; it is a magnificently queer cult classic, draped in luxurious fabrics and tarted up in glittery eyeshadow and lipstick for all the world to gaze at adoringly. Quite a few viewers over the years have misunderstood the film as a David Bowie biopic, but in actuality it’s more of a tribute to the experience of loving the glam rock music movement itself. Excessive indulgence was the name of the game for Bowie, Iggy Pop (The Stooges), Marc Bolan (T. Rex), Bryan Ferry (Roxy Music), Brian Eno, Lou Reed and everyone in the New York Dolls, so of course that’s also the case for the characters in this film. The mystery at the heart of Velvet – the rise, fall and subsequent disappearance of Venus in Furs frontman Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) – borrows details from the lives of many of the aforementioned musicians, plus a little Jobriath thrown in for good measure.
Brian is the object of lust at the center of Velvet’s universe, but the story is primarily seen through the eyes of a fan, Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), whose repressed gay adolescence was given release when glam rock revolutionized the look and sound of the music scene’s young idols. Arthur was fortunate to be present at a few vitally important concerts in Brian’s heyday, most notably the one that involved a shocking assassination-by-gunshot attempt. The incident was quickly revealed to have been a hoax cooked up by his management, a stunt that put an end to Brian’s career. (This is one of the character’s main similarities with Jobriath, who, like Brian Slade, was an openly gay rock star. Jobriath was touted as America’s answer to Bowie, but lost public favor following a huge buildup of hype and a ridiculously extravagant set of tour plans that never materialized. The other similarity is in their album covers.) On the ten-year anniversary of the “shooting,” in 1984, Arthur is working as a journalist in New York and he is tasked with finding out whatever became of the former star. Thus begins an odyssey into his and Brian’s pasts, like Citizen Kane with feather boas.
Like a proverbial phoenix, Brian Slade ascends from hippie singer-songwriter with flowing locks to a spiky-haired glam god singing about spaceships from the POV of his Ziggy Stardust-style alter ego, Maxwell Demon. Brian’s manager, Jerry Devine (Eddie Izzard), raises his meal ticket’s popularity with young Brits to a fever pitch; of more significant importance to Brian, however, is that he meets American glam-punk rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). Modeled on Iggy Pop yet bearing a disconcerting physical resemblance to Kurt Cobain, Curt Wild is a raucous American rebel who inspires Brian’s professional imagination as well as his infatuation. The pair embark on a passionate affair, which drives a wedge between Brian and his party-girl wife, Mandy (Toni Collette, deftly utilizing a mixture of American and phony-English accents à la Angela Bowie). Unlike the real Bowie’s negation of his bisexuality (as a “closet heterosexual”) years after the glam rock era had ended, Brian’s sexual fluidity is never portrayed as a stage act.
As Arthur gets closer to the truth of what happened to Brian in the wake of the murder hoax – naturally, this Icarus’s burnout includes a downward spiral into heroin addiction – the film asks us to consider the malleability of identity and image, particularly with regard to celebrity and artists’ neverending battle between authenticity and artifice. Glam rock was a genre of reinvention for singers in the 1970s, seen most famously in David Bowie’s multiple personae during that decade; over the course of Velvet Goldmine, Brian Slade and Arthur Stuart undergo major changes, both cosmetically (Brian’s ever-evolving hair and makeup, Arthur’s growing ease with dressing in a glammed-up fashion) and sexually. Emotionally, the two men are each other’s foils, with the depth of Arthur’s personal journey contrasting sharply with Brian, about whom we never learn quite enough to get a true sense of his inner self. But in the end, maybe that’s for the best. In our current age of TMI, the idea of a glam rock supernova who rarely discloses his most private thoughts is tantalizing. For all we know, there’s not much going on underneath the androgynously pretty façade, which wouldn’t be a surprise. After all, this is a film fixated on The Picture of Dorian Gray’s symbolism, the mythology of Oscar Wilde himself and the concept that Wilde might have been an alien sent to Earth to share his literally stellar witticisms.
From shot to shot, the aesthetics of the film keep the viewer’s eye roving constantly. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography brings out the dazzling colors in Sandy Powell’s Oscar-nominated costume design, the makeup/hair design by Peter King, the production design by Christopher Hobbs and the art direction by Andrew Munro. The whole shebang is held together with the editing by James Lyons, who also co-wrote the film’s story with Todd Haynes; Lyons excels in the film’s exuberant opening credits sequence, set to Brian Eno’s “Needles in the Camel’s Eye,” and a later montage in which Brian and Arthur performing Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire” onstage is interwoven with scenes of Arthur masturbating to a newspaper photo of both men kissing in front of paparazzi.
It should also go without saying that the soundtrack is wall-to-wall brilliance. Even though David Bowie refused to give Todd Haynes the rights to use the song “Velvet Goldmine,” Haynes succeeds gloriously with tracks by Brian Eno, Slade (a nice joke on the director’s part), Roxy Music, Gary Glitter, Grant Lee Buffalo, T. Rex, Lou Reed and Steve Harley; covers interpreted by Thom Yorke (who does a spot-on Bryan Ferry impression on Roxy’s “2HB”) and Placebo (Brian Molko has a small role as a flashy entertainer at a couple of gigs); and original tunes performed by Shudder to Think and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the latter showcasing a charmingly nasal, un-singer-like quality to his vocals. Arguably it’s a bit distracting that so many artists with noticeably different voices perform in the guise of Brian Slade, but the recordings are great enough that it doesn’t end up mattering. Additionally, Ewan McGregor does all of his own vocals as Curt Wild, which works especially well when he covers Iggy Pop’s “Gimme Danger.” McGregor’s erotically charged presence is undeniable. It’s a shame that we never learn anything about Curt Wild’s background or the direction his career took post-Brian Slade, but maybe Todd Haynes felt that there was already plenty going on in the plot.
Velvet Goldmine is a film that may take more than one viewing for its meanings to sink again. Certainly it’s more fun the second time around, making it easier to recognize the various moments of foreshadowing and other amusing details that pop up throughout the narrative. It’s a tale founded on a dangerously symbiotic relationship between desire and destruction, but there is also immense pleasure in appreciating the technical craft that makes Haynes’ work electric, reveling in every joyously gaudy frock and screeching guitar riff.