Iconoclastic American indie filmmaker Todd Haynes takes a highly personal look at the British glam rock scene of the early ’70s in “Velvet Goldmine,” a constantly imaginative, stylistically lively but dramatically inert chronicle of cultural and sexual rebellion. Self-consciously structured as a “Citizen Kane”-like investigation into the life and career of a vanished superstar rocker and his intimates, boldly conceived film boasts an arresting first half but bogs down thereafter, as the multilayering of the storytelling technique becomes more of a burden than an assist. Bigger and more accessible than Haynes’ previous features, “Poison” and “Safe,” pic sports a sensibility that places it on the cusp between cult fare and the musical mainstream. U.S. distrib Miramax can be counted on to push it vigorously into the latter arena upon its release in the fall, although the film’s studied approach and particularized take on the scene suggest a limited B.O. future rather than widespread acceptance.
Haynes views the glam rock era — an immediate post-flower-child phenomenon marked by personal liberation through sexual abandon, self-indulgence, role playing, experimentation of all kinds and the anti-establishment contrariness that always defines rock ‘n’ roll — as a privileged moment when anything was possible. Specifically, writer-director relates this cultural blossoming to the pan-sexuality and pervasive aesthetic irreverence of Oscar Wilde, who is presented in the film’s cheeky opening moments as the patron saint of the glam rock movement.
Narrated initially by an offscreen female voice (Janet McTeer), film comes into focus as megastar glam rocker Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who performs as a character called Maxwell Demon and has predicted that he would be assassinated onstage, is seemingly shot dead during a concert. When the killing is exposed to have been a hoax, Slade’s career slides right down the chute, the singer becoming just one more rock ‘n’ roll casualty.
Ten years later, in a very grim 1984, Brit newspaper reporter Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), who was a big Slade fan and witnessed the “shooting,” is assigned to write a “Whatever Happened to Brian Slade” feature. With the “Kane” interview structure kicking in, Arthur first visits the man who discovered Slade, Cecil (Michael Feast), now a washed-up, wheelchair-bound man. Cecil covers the star’s early life, his uncertain first steps as a performer and his career-altering encounter with the outlandish American singer Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), whose audacious act (including rude posturing, full frontal nudity and diving through flames into the audience) makes Slade realize he’s seen the future. McGregor’s ejaculatory performance in this number is amazing, fully convincing as the Iggy Pop-like maniac he’s supposed to be.
When the aggressive manager Jerry Divine (Brit comedian Eddie Izzard) takes over Slade’s career by guaranteeing stardom, the narrative baton is passed to Mandy Slade (Toni Collette), the popster’s American ex-wife who, in the most explicit “Kane” reference in the picture, gives her interview to Arthur while drinking in a dark, empty nightclub (Haynes refrains from beginning the sequence with a through-the-roof crane shot, however).
Mandy, who adopted an English accent years ago and, in a witty choice, still slips in and out of Yank and Brit inflections, takes Arthur back to 1969, when she met Slade at the notorious Sombrero Club. The couple marry, their sexual relationship is moodily evoked and, over the next three years, Slade emerges as the ultimate in cool, a frankly bisexual rock star who pushes the edge in style, music and attitude and is an idol to impressionable teens everywhere. No one will have any trouble identifying David Bowie as the inspiration for Slade.
But by now, Wild has slid into the entropy of drug addiction, barely able to speak, much less perform. On a trip to the States, the still idolatrous Slade pulls him out of his torpor, into his band and, shortly, into his bed. The pair are a sensation for a while, but Wild’s out-of-control behavior soon puts him back in a downward spin, leading to their breakup. Brian and Mandy split as well, and, by the time of her interview with Arthur, she hasn’t seen her former husband in seven years.
Pic is loaded with music, much of it excitingly staged and performed. The trappings of the era — the colored hair, exotic facial makeup, glitzy costumes, platform shoes and boots, imperious poses, sexually challenging attitudes and trippy special effects — provide a busy, visually stimulating backdrop, although it will be up to music-era experts to comment on the authenticity of the pic’s re-creation.
So, too, will musicians and glam rock fans have their say on how the glam sound has been re-created through a combo of actual tunes from the period by the likes of Bryan Ferry, Lou Reed, Brian Eno and Gary Glitter, covers of vintage songs and some new compositions. At a first listen, the music is strong and effective. It also, however, tends to take over at the expense of dramatic depth and involvement.
A more serious problem is that, by the time the story’s final act kicks in, pic has already made abundantly clear what it wants to say about cultural liberation and personal freedom. With the Slade-Mandy-Wild intrigue put to bed, attention turns to journo Arthur, who simply isn’t very interesting, especially after what’s come before. Although it enables the repressed Arthur to finally achieve the sexual identity he’s been unable to assert up to then, his eventual link with Wild isn’t very compelling or convincing, and the resolution of the Slade story lacks impact as well.
There are other, more minor, elements that clutter the film. A figure named Jack Fairy is given significant early importance as the true progenitor of the glam movement, but he’s ill-defined and finally just dropped. The scenes with Arthur’s boss at the newspaper are poorly judged, and what Haynes was trying to pull off by presenting 1984 from the imaginary perspective of the early ’70s — it’s a glum, quasi-Orwellian vision presided over by a President Reynolds — remains unclear. Notion is intellectually intriguing, but doesn’t play terribly well.
But the filmmaking is expansive and creative, an ambitious step beyond Haynes’ previous work, even if the result may prove less cohesive and satisfying to his earlier fans. Haynes makes clear that he is using the glam rock era to exalt his passionate belief that certain moments in time, and certain artistic movements, can open people up rather than limit them in their beliefs and behavior.
On a more mundane level, the homage to glam is probably just a nostalgic glorification of the music of Haynes’ youth, the sort of thing for which the members of almost any generation could construct a rationale if they set their minds to it. But glam has never been done before in a feature, and it gives the film an agreeable unfamiliarity.
Technical achievements are outstanding, notably Maryse Alberti’s highly resourceful camerawork, Christopher Hobbs’ elaborate production design, Sandy Powell’s costumes and the ever-changing hair and makeup designs by Peter King.
Performances are functional rather than deep or psychologically telling. Rhys Meyers looks every bit the cold, inscrutable rock star, Izzard nails the smarmy, masterfully manipulative manager, and Collette, much thinner than she’s been in other films, is close to a revelation as Slade’s game wife who gets lost in the dust of his demise. Bale, however, is opaque as the lad who follows the rock star’s career from the beginning, and McGregor, while exciting in the musical interludes, seems vaguely off the mark as the unhinged but inspired American performer; with his long blondish locks and rather fleshy face, he looks so startlingly like the late Kurt Cobain that, given the name of his character, one can only wonder if the resemblance was intentional.