Directed and written by Todd Haynes
With Ewan McGregor, John Rhys-Meyers, Toni Collette and Christian Bale
Distributed by Miramax
Don't come to VELVET GOLDMINE expecting a vicarious acid trip or orgy. It may be full of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, but, as anyone who's seen Haynes' SUPERSTAR, POISON or SAFE can guess, it aspires - and I must stress aspires - to be a movie of ideas. Haynes' earlier films experimented with the limits of identification: SUPERSTAR dared the spectator to sympathize with Barbie dolls, while SAFE deliberately denied access to its central character's emotions and inner life. That masterpiece synthesized the austere, surface-fascinated Robert Bresson/Michaelangelo Antonioni/Chantal Akerman tradition brilliantly with the biological horror of ROSEMARY'S BABY and David Cronenberg's films at the cost of most of its American audience (including plenty of clueless critics). Made for 7 times the budget of SAFE, VELVET GOLDMINE is certain to reach a far wider audience. Even with a bigger budget and the aid of Miramax, Haynes remains something of a provocateur.
Along with THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, glam rock may have been the first expression of avant-garde ideas about sexuality expressed in the films of Kenneth Anger , Andy Warhol and Jack Smith and in Ridiculous Theater to reach a mass teenage audience. (Significantly, one of the backup bands of VELVET GOLDMINE's Iggy Pop-like star Curt Wild is named after Smith's FLAMING CREATURES.) From its very beginning, rock included artists who flirted with a gay image, but glam made this flirtation so loud and clear that no one could ignore it. The "movement," if one can call it that, didn't last long, but its emphasis on image and its tendency to value concise songs over displays of instrumental flash paved the way for the more overtly politicized punk rebellion of the late 70s. Although there were exceptions (Queen singer Freddie Mercury, transsexual Wayne/Jayne County), most glam rockers' flirtations with sexual ambiguity were fleeting. David Bowie and Lou Reed may once have been openly bisexual, but they're now deeply in denial about that past, while sometime crossdressers like Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls were always basically heterosexual. (One measure of Reed's level of denial is a song on his BLUE MASK album which declares "Only a woman can love a man.") For Haynes, none of the above matters. VELVET GOLDMINE is an argument about the subversive, liberating power of their images, as well as a deeply personal testimony to its impact. Although its characters are obviously based on David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Angela Bowie, it shouldn't be confused with a film a clef. As a SPIN writer put it, "David Bowie may not have been gay. Ziggy Stardust was."
Some films have a precise sense of exactly where they're going and the quickest means to get there. The works of Bresson and Akerman come to mind, as well as SAFE. Other films draw on the unpredictability of life, mixing moods, tones and rhythms wildly. They're are perfectly willing to be incoherent, self-indulgent or uneven, as long as these seeming lapses contribute something to the texture of the work as a whole. In this case, the works of the late John Cassavetes, Shohei Imamura and Emir Kusturica come to mind. VELVET GOLDMINE falls into the latter category. Early on, its density seems promising. The first 15 minutes catapult between 4 different time frames, still managing to find time for an exhilarating credit sequence set to Brian Eno's "Needle In The Camel's Eye." In homage to CITIZEN KANE (complete with fake newsreels), the narrative begins with the assignment of journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) to write about the mysterious disappearance of 70s rock star Brian Slade (John Rhys-Davies). Stuart's investigations and interviews with Slade's manager and ex-wife trigger a biography of Slade: his childhood, his early years as a mod on the edges of Swinging London, his eventual discovery of the look and sound that would make him into a star, his ZIGGY STARDUST-like concept album and tour about alien rock star Maxwell Demon. Once he becomes a star, he endeavors to revive the career of his American inspiration, Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), and the two eventually fall in love. The music for Rhys-Davies' convincing performances was provided by a group called Venus In Furs, featuring Radiohead singer Thom Yorke and Roxy Music saxophonist Andy McKay, and the music for McGregor's somewhat less convincing ones comes from the Wylde Rattz, who include Stooges bassist Ron Asheton and members of Mudhoney and Sonic Youth. McGregor sings the Stooges songs "TV Eye" and "Gimme Danger," while Rhys-Davies performs songs by Roxy Music and Brian Eno. Additionally, a female singer is seen performing the New York Dolls' "Personality Crisis."
I don't particularly mind that Haynes hasn't made a film about the inner life of Bowie or Iggy, but I do mind that he hasn't made a film about the inner life of Brian Slade and Curt Wild (or even Arthur Stuart). In the seemingly thankless role of Brian's wife Mandy, Toni Collette does manage to create a character who feels like a human being. Although Collette appears in some of the 70s scenes, sheÕs most memorable as the older and wiser woman being interviewed by Stuart in 1984. Even so, her relationship with Brian is horribly underdeveloped, and the love affair between Curt and Brian is only developed a little further, even though Haynes is clearly fascinated by it.
If I'm not mistaken, Haynes has a degree in semiotics. His extremely articulate interviews display a wide knowledge of film history and an acquaintance with film theory. All this erudition is visible in his work. His use of rock history minutiae (like Lou Reed, Curt Wild is given electroshock treatment by his parents to "cure" his homosexuality) is also impressive. He's acutely aware of glam's precursors and its connections to certain films of the era. VELVET GOLDMINE is intended as a celebration of bisexuality and the kind of sexual fluidity that's become more difficult to accomplish in our era of identity politics. But I'm not sure how much of this would come across to someone who hadn't read interviews with Haynes or seen him speak. None of the film's many reference points - Oscar Wilde, Little Richard, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, as well as the aforementioned nods to CITIZEN KANE and Jack Smith - amounts to much more than a sort of shout-out to fellow film and rock buffs.
The two most common criticisms of VELVET GOLDMINE have been that 1)the characters are too thin and shallow and 2)the narrative never really comes together. Before seeing it, I was suspicious of these charges, especially since SAFE received so many negative and ambivalent reviews. The first could be lodged against SAFE, the second against POISON. In SAFE, the glossy chill of the cinematography, Haynes' precise framing and intricate interweaving of sound effects and music created a threatening backdrop that sometimes took on more life than its characters. Criticizing it because Juliane Moore's character remains inscrutable makes about as much sense as criticizing Keir Dullea's performance in 2001. With its three-part/genre structure, POISON was hardly a straightforward narrative, but its cross-cutting between these stories created plenty of narrative momentum. Both of these films worked fine without conventional narrative or fully developed characters, but the somewhat more formally conventional VELVET GOLDMINE doesn't. In fact, it suggests a new problem in Haynes' work: an inability to deal with direct expressions of emotion.
Describing a 1969 New Years' Eve party, Mandy says something along the lines of "It was the end of the decade. We felt that the future was full of possibility." The sense of countercultural possibility that VELVET GOLDMINE evokes was not particularly well represented in cinema, not even in the extremely pessimistic films of the 70s American renaissance. One can hear it in early 70s albums as different as the Stooges' FUNHOUSE, Miles Davis' BITCHES BREW, Funkadelic's MAGGOT BRAIN, Can's EGE BAMYASI, not to mention the work of Bowie and Roxy Music. As dark as some of these masterpieces are, all testify to a breakdown of restrictive boundaries. Film may be too literal a medium to successfully capture this spirit; Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's genuinely hallucinatory and Dionysian PERFORMANCE and Jacques Rivette's CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING may come closest. Haynes has expressed his love for "films that came out of the drug culture", which PERFORMANCE clearly did. Like it, VELVET GOLDMINE wants to take us higher. Unfortunately, Haynes' sensibility is far too detached for this liftoff to occur. What a buzzkill.
In the end, VELVET GOLDMINE is a film of paradoxes: a shallow movie of ideas, a propulsive film that goes nowhere. The least puzzling one is that it remains quite entertaining and compulsively watchable without ever being fully satisfying. Hollywood is quite adept at this trick, and I'm sorry to see Haynes resort to it.