“C’Mon Kids, Let’s Put On A Show:” Velvet Goldmine Redux

Last night (N.B. by “last night” I mean “this summer.” Because I have been a blogging super slacker the last few months. I am hoping that will change, but I make no promises. Also, given that I started writing this post back in July, it may have a little of the Kubla Khan disjointedness), at the request of a friend, I revisited one of my all-time favorite films, Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine.  If you’ve known me long enough, we’ve probably watched this together at some point. I watched it so many times in high school, I wore out my VHS tape. When I say this movie changed my life, I’m not kidding—I encountered it first as an impressionable 14-year-old, and it subsequently impacted the way I dressed, my taste in music, the kind of guys I found attractive, the books I read. I hadn’t seen the film in a few years and I was curious to see if I would find it as compelling now that I’m older, wiser, and less inclined to cover my combat boots in glitter paint.

Velvet Goldmine tells the fictional rise and fall of ‘70s glam rocker Brian Slade (played by a stunningly fey Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Blatantly aping the structure of Citizen Kane, the film traces the career of Slade and his alter-ego, Maxwell Demon, via interviews with his first manager (Michael Feast) and ex-wife (Toni Collette). Christian Bale plays our intrepid reporter, Arthur, who reflects on his own place within the Glam Rock movement while digging through the sordid details of Slade’s climb to fame and high-profile affair with Iggy-Pop stand-in Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). Velvet Goldmine is a giddy spectacle first and foremost, but those critics who wrote it off as vapid are missing the point of the film—which in my opinion, is about the power of creative energy.

We see Arthur as an adult, numb and unsmiling with the grey backdrop of ‘80s New York a purposefully stark contrast to the ‘70s psychedelic smorgasbord of color. As a closeted teen (in an offensively bad wig), Arthur is liberated by the exhibitionism of his musical idols. Take the scene of a Brian Slade press conference, where the singer vamps and minces for the reporters, and young Arthur watches rapt from his living room. When questioned about his sexuality,Slade proclaims “I should think that if people were to get the wrong impression of me…it wouldn’t be the wrong impression in the slightest.” Arthur is transformed. “That’s me! That’s me, Dad!” he imagines shouting, before we cut to him silent, peeking glances at his stone-faced parents as they watch the interview.

For anyone who’s felt a little off-center, who suddenly found in their discovery of music someone whounderstood the core of who they were, and not only that, legitimized it, this scene should strike a chord. Like all rock music, glam was about giving the middle finger to the mainstream while simultaneously co-opting the best bits until counter-culture and plain-old-regular culture blended together. At the start of the film, Brian Slade is doing his best to fuck the establishment with copious gender-bending, but can’t get anyone to listen. Curt Wild shows him how it’s done (clip awesomely NSFW):

If I had to pick one reason for people to watch this movie, that scene would be it. I love the decadence and meticulous construction of Brian Slade’s world, but the raw power–pardon the pun–of McGregor’s performance single-handedly sets him up as the catalyst for everything that follows, and the link that will improbably connect Brian to Arthur.

I found it interesting, after I’m Not There came out, when critics finally started to bring Velvet Goldmine into conversations about Todd Haynes. It’s generally talked about as a test-run for the later film, and there are certainly similarities. I’m Not There is absolutely a more mature work, but I (clearly, given the length of this entry) think that VG shouldn’t be considered as a footnote in the director’s career. It’s rare that a movie is both genuinely entertaining and thought-provoking, one that conveys the feel of a specific point in time so precisely without turning into a dry period piece. I love showing this movie to people for the first time, because I always hope it will give them the same shot of pure pleasure that it does for me. I don’t think I can say any more to support my case: if at this point you still don’t want to check it out, well, nothing’s going to convince you. But if you’re intrigued, then I encourage you to watch it at maximum volume.