You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
For this instalment, Saro Lusty-Cavallari looks at the 1998 feature from Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine.
It’s not at all uncommon for directors to tackle the subcultures of their youth through nostalgia-tinted glasses. Critical reception and box office receipts have vindicated the generational snapshots of American Graffiti, Dazed & Confused and Almost Famous. Yet when Todd Haynes, who has been quietly making some of the greatest American films of the last two decades, sought to create a tribute to the glam rock subculture that would provide a brief spotlight for the sexual misfits of the world he sought for something universal, mythic and far less solipsistic than the baby boomer fantasies of his contemporaries. For such a personal project, Velvet Goldmine is a remarkably generous and inclusive film, one that effortlessly morphs the distorted parallel rock history with a soundtrack by Britain’s most celebrated modern artists. Just as glam provided an outlet for those caught between the hippies, the mods and the punks, Velvet Goldmine became a cult hit amongst teenagers of the late 90s, offering something that moody grunge, bratty pop punk or laddish Britpop couldn’t. Instead of trying to provide the life of David Bowie and his contemporaries, or zero in on the life of a young fan finding his sexuality with his rock star heroes as a backdrop, Haynes weaves it all together into this epic assault of sound and vision that presents glam rock as a brave new world of sexual and identity politics.
There are numerous ways to appreciate the film (which is true of all of Haynes’ densely constructed oeuvre) and when you consider that Haynes’ academic background is in semiotics you can begin to peel away how impeccably the narrative is layered. Brian Slade is David Bowie only when David Bowie is the most interesting source to draw on. David Bowie did in fact “kill” Ziggy Stardust (the inspiration for Slade’s “Maxwell Demon” character), but he didn’t do it as literally or theatrically and, as we all know, continued to have a celebrated career in many guises but still ostensibly as the same artist. Similarly Bowie would reinvent himself as a (somewhat ironic) American soul artist with increasingly elaborate arena stage shows, and in fact his first album after the ‘death’ of Ziggy was a loose concept album adapting Orwell’s 1984. It’s not much of a story, in the same way that Johnny Cash’s tumultuous life story might be, but as a myth projected by a rock star it is alluring, and Haynes wisely inflates the myth instead of searching for the ‘truth’. Bowie’s musical shift is now reimagined as an actual shape-shift into a conservative American pop star, the musical landscape of the apocalyptic Diamond Dogs informing Haynes’ alternate Reaganist (or should that be Reynoldsist?) America. The Citizen Kane framing device, besides being downright ballsy, gives Haynes a self-reflexive way to reject the conventional assertion of truth in music biopics while inflating these symbols of rock ‘n’ roll to larger-than-life proportions. Even as the ostensible star of the film, Jonathon Rhys Myers seems to only exist in the collective imaginations of the film’s characters.
Todd Haynes’ background in semiotics and obsession with Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet inform his relatively subversive examination of identity and image, intertwining the two in such a way that can’t be untangled. His exploration of pop iconography and personal identity had already been demonstrated with his early and now banned film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a student film that told the story of the titular pop star’s struggle with anorexia entirely with Barbie dolls (a conceit briefly employed in Velvet Goldmine). Of course Haynes would take this approach to its purest extreme in 2007’s masterful I’m Not There, where the myth of Bob Dylan is fractured into six different personas. However this ethos can be found in every corner of his work, his Douglas Sirk-inspired melodramas similarly zero in on how people have built themselves up as a composite of the culture around them and of course it informs his key role in the new queer cinema.
For a director obsessed with how people are trapped by the identity thrust upon them, it makes sense that he would see rock stars as the most undiluted subject to explore this and how their self-mythologizing is the greatest form of liberation. Curt Wild says at the end that “a man’s life is his image” and it comes across as Haynes’ thesis statement for his work, or at least the self-determined inspiring flipside to the oppressive normative culture he shows otherwise. It is also worth considering how much of a daring statement this was in 1997 (or now for that matter). Musically grunge was still looming large and most of the other musical subcultures popping up were similarly looking to ‘realness’ for credibility. The very recent memory of Kurt Cobain, with his worn out flannel from an op shop on national television had come to define how being true, down to earth and unpretentious was the way to express oneself. When seen through the lens of the late 90s, Velvet Goldmine’s cult status among teens is easier to understand – there wasn’t much of an alternative. If your identity is all affect anyway why not claim it for yourself and create your own bold statement? Oscar Wilde pushed passed the spiritual earnestness of the romantics, David Bowie (or Brian Slade) took that same irreverent decadence to counterpoint the hippies and the upcoming punks and now Haynes had recreated it for a whole bunch of younger misfits to claim as their own.
Yet Haynes’ very intelligent and academic approach often overshadows how much of a sumptuous and visceral filmmaker he is. Velvet Goldmine’s non-linear and over the top approach tends to attract the tired criticism of “feature length music video” but Goldmine achieves something so much more extraordinary. The voiceover-heavy approach lets Haynes dispense of any moments in the 70s that aren’t decadently vibrant, an essential approach in keeping the film’s pace up as well as retaining the mystique of Slade. Yet there are moments when the voiceover completely disappears and we’re left with seemingly endless montages that don’t so much communicate information through images but infect us with raw energy. There’s a purely cinematic feeling to so much of Velvet Goldmine as it slowly dispenses with the burden of its dense narrative, without losing a grip on it, and becomes this freeform tone poem about the era, weaving together performance, sexual drama and symbolic image. The film never reverts to outright surrealism or incoherence (give or take a few frames), it is simply aware of the limitations of conventional narrative in getting across the profound impact of these people and their music on people’s lives.
There are sequences in this film that give me so much pleasure to behold. The introduction of Curt Wild, when the film is still more or less composing a straight story, is a rather straightforward but devastatingly effective introduction to the character. It perfectly embodies the film’s ethos as Wild ensnares the film before he is even in frame, howling into the mic before launching into the Stooges’ anarchic TV Eye as his backstory, largely taken from that of Lou Reed, is hurled at us through the flames of Wild’s terrifyingly mad performance. This is rock ‘n’ roll biography without the boring bits; it doesn’t matter who’s exactly who, Iggy Pop had the most raucous stage presence and Reed had the most perverse backstory, so of course you fuse the two to make the perfectly dangerous counterpoint to Slade’s perfectly constructed dandy pop star. As the film progresses, these sequences get less tight and more impressionistic, culminating in the poignant climactic sequence that moves freely between time as Jack Fairy elegises the glam rock movement while we cut from audience reaction, vérité home videos and the POV of a sort of dandy spaceship with the ordinary lives touched by glam looking up in awe. Then the film ends by containing this madcap and profoundly important cultural artefact, if you’ve gone along with the film, in its most basic receptor, a radio. And then we’re out.
I’d like to finish by examining the film’s rosebud, the strange green pendent that gets passed from the space alien Oscar Wilde to Jack Fairy to Brian Slade to Curt Wild and then eventually to Arthur Stuart (and if you’ve been reading thus far having not seen the film, hopefully that sentence will you convince you how strangely beautiful it is). In a film of densely layered symbols and signs, it seems that the most straightforward reading of the object is of a sort of pop idol, a lucky charm, a token that lifts an artist to something powerful. So why does Bale end up with it, what has he got left to do? Well just as Wild and Slade are twisted representations of real people, maybe Stuart is that to Haynes. Perhaps he goes on to create his own cult artefact to be discussed, dissected and worshipped like his idols. Then again, as Curt Wild says, “a real artist creates beautiful things and puts nothing of his own life into them, OK?”
Andrej Trbojevic: A paean to the glossy heyday of glam rock with Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers macking at the apex of their silver-screen virility, what’s there not to like about Velvet Goldmine? Very little as it were. You’d have to be Fred Nile or a Boko Harem luny to be impervious to the infectious romp of this film, a template for all subsequent tasteful musicals a la The Boat That Rocked. And great fun it is. The film oozes with supreme libertine choreography, all kinds of Eros and spilled Blow to the sound of the Stooges, T-Rex and Cockney Rebel. Rock ‘n’ roll is my God, as Lou Reed said, and this film is one of its satyrs.
Does everything work? Not really. Christian Bale’s psychopathy barely hides behind his featureless face, and I have no idea what his character is doing in the script at all. Something about the lineage between Wilde and washed out journos caught flying solo by parents who missed out on the 60s. I’m a bit ambivalent about the performances too: Meyers is superb and I want to fuck him like everyone else, but McGregor, playing Iggy Pop, one of my idols and someone I’ve WITNESSED three times, is a bit fake.
But it suffers a bit from the mortal sin of being…boring. It’s way more fun to watch a show than to watch someone watching a show, and other people’s senseless pleasure, when not mutually enjoyed, is just senseless. The debauchery detracts from having a real interest in the characters. Plus glam rock quickly became a caricature of itself and the very thing it despised in the “hypocrisy” of flower power pop: naff, and so this film is at times, and I don’t accept that that’s the meta-point. Still, it’s cult, there are some genuinely sublime moments and you’re No Fun if you don’t like it. Just don’t call me Sebastian.
Virat Nehru: Where Velvet Goldmine succeeds is in capturing an aesthetic which otherwise gets reduced to buzzwords like ‘glam rock’. I don’t think the aesthetic is that easy to categorise or even pinpoint. It’s part of a broader cultural experience brave enough to only be certain of the uncertainty that lies beyond the status quo, and by all means, revel in it. In doing that, it’s concerned more with experiential pathos than other more conventional modes of plot-driven narratives. And from that lens, it works remarkably well. Ironically, the film is weakest when it tries to be certain of what it is truly about – when it tries to converge from its broader, macro strokes to a focal point of discussion on sexual identity and social norms. This robs the film of a lot of nuance and at times it comes across as a pathetic attempt to be self-effacing. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is absolutely fantastic here. He often makes mediocrely enigmatic characters look absolutely irresistible on screen. But here, he absolutely owns the screen and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. It’s sad to hear that Bowie disliked the film because Slade’s characterisation was layered and quite intriguing. The soundtrack is amazing and contributes to the aesthetic that the film tries to capture. Sandy Powell’s costumes are so detailed and are a major reason that the film manages to so easily transport you to its cultural context. I’m not so sure that Haynes’ non-linear narrative works but that’s a small qualm. Overall, I quite liked this film, especially the cultural aesthetic aspect.
Velvet Goldmine is currently available free to stream on SBS on Demand here.