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The Boston Phoenix Stardust Memories

'Velvet Goldmine' stirs up the glam past

By Matt Ashare

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  As the camera enters the Earth's atmosphere and begins its familiar skydiving fall toward the opening scene of Todd Haynes's glam-rock drama Velvet Goldmine, there is every reason to believe that it's headed for Bromley circa January 8, 1947, the place and date of David Bowie's birth. After all, Bowie was The Man Who Fell To Earth. And along with taking its name from an obscure Bowie tune, Velvet Goldmine is, on the surface at least, a film inspired by the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the glammiest of all Bowie's many mutations. So it would make a certain amount of sense for Haynes to begin his story by delivering his version of Bowie -- a pouty and aloof Jonathan Rhys Meyers in guise of über rock star Brian Slade -- into post-war London via the stars.

Sense, however, is one thing that holds very little interest for Todd Haynes, the 37-year-old director whose first full-length feature was the Karen Carpenter story acted out by Barbie dolls, and whose last film, Poison, had Julianne Moore developing what amounted an allergic reaction to the 20th century. He's much more interested in metaphors and surfaces than in depth or naturalism -- which makes him the perfect filmmaker to attempt the story of glam, a stylized musical movement that was all about elaborate veneers and logic-defying fantasies. But Velvet Goldmine is not a Backbeat-style bio-pic about the Ziggy years, or even a surreal fairy-tale interpolation à la Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy. No, Haynes has something much more ambitious and ambiguous in mind -- "Velvet Goldmine is a valentine to the sounds and images that erupted in and around London in the early '70s," is how he put it in his mouthful of a Director's Statement, "to Brian Ferry, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and the extraordinary inversions they imposed on our notions of performance, sexuality, and identity."

And so Velvet Goldmine's initial touchdown takes place not in Bromley, London, or even England proper, but in Dublin; not in 1947, the 1970s, or even the 20th century, but in 1854. The purpose: to check in on the childhood of one Oscar Wilde, who informs his teacher and classmates quite seriously, not to mention anachronistically, that he intends to be a "pop idol" when he grows up, something Bowie himself is reported to have said upon graduating from high school. We're also treated to the fanciful sight of a green amulet falling from the heavens and into the young Wilde's possession.

With the not-so-subtle hint that David Bowie may be a time-traveling Oscar Wilde carefully planted and the sense that we've embarked on a sci-fi detective story of sorts suggested, Velvet Goldmine jumps forward a century and turns into postmodern Citizen Kane -- Kane as a dressed-up musical period piece driven by a bogus mystery and an investigation destined to lead nowhere slow. Brian Slade, who, give or take some eyeshadow, is Bowie, serves as this film's Charles Foster Kane; the green amulet, which finds its way into Slade's hands, is the "Rosebud" MacGuffin; and Arthur Stuart (played by Christian Bale) is the reporter digging through a murky past to uncover the truth about Slade.

Cinemaphiles will have no trouble spotting Haynes's overt Kane mutinies -- the office scene where Stuart reluctantly accepts the Slade assignment; the dark bar where Stuart interviews the tired and damaged former Mrs. Brian Slade (played by Toni Collette, who affects a wonderful fake English accent) -- or his visual nods to the hyper-real worlds of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey. And rock-trivia buffs will be just as tickled by the care with which Haynes gets Ziggy with the film. It's a treasure trove of obscure references, composite characters, and historical parallels. There's Curt Wild (a grungy Ewan McGregor), the detached Slade's all-too-passionate American foil -- whose band, the Rats, are named after Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson's first outfit; whose biography is a loose blend of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop lore; and who looks at one point so much like Kurt Cobain it's eerie. There's Slade's faked on-stage death, which puts a rather literal spin on Bowie's retirement of his Ziggy persona.

Indeed, Haynes mounts a barrage of pop culture so carefully orchestrated that it may be a while before you realize that nothing is really happening in Velvet Goldmine in regard to traditional narrative. Like glam rock itself, which always looks profound from a distance but has rarely placed much value on depth, the film doesn't bother with heavy character or plot development. You're supposed to know the story before it even begins, and to fill in the missing information on your own. Everyone here, from Rhys Meyers to a delightfully devious Eddie Izzard (who plays Slade's manager Jerry Divine, a character modeled, of course, on Bowie's Ziggy-era manager, Tony Defries) is a rock archetype with a predetermined role in the rise-and-fall myth of the postmodern pop idol.

All of which makes Velvet Goldmine more compelling as rock criticism than as entertaining cinema. (Roger Ebert's pat verdict on the similarly impressionistic 1970 film Performance -- "The move is neither very good nor very bad. Interesting." -- comes to mind.) Rock critics look for meaning, relevance, and cultural connections in stories that have already been told, in albums, concerts, and careers. Haynes does the same with glam rock, a giant blip on the radar of the early '70s that exploded conventional notions of gender and identity and burned itself out. Velvet Goldmine is a meditation on that event and its ties to the past (i.e., Oscar Wilde). And it's an argument in favor of music that reaches recklessly for the stars, of theater, of androgyny, of spiders from Mars.

Of equal importance to Haynes's argument is the film's soundtrack (on London), a fine collection of glam-period covers (T-Rex's "20th Century Boy" by Placebo and the New York Dolls' "Personality Crisis" by Teenage Fanclub with Donna Matthews), genuine artifacts (Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love" and Roxy Music's "Virginia Plain"), and new glam facsimiles (Bowie-esque new tunes like Shudder To Think's "Hot One" and Grant Lee Buffalo's "The Whole Shebang"). By bringing together a wide array of contemporary artists, including Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley (who back Mudhoney singer Mark Arm on a furious version of the Stooges' "T.V. Eye") and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke (who sings the Brian Ferry tune "Bitter-Sweet"), the disc suggests that perhaps the time is right for glam to rear its glittering head in the 20th century -- that perhaps, just as Singles, the film and the soundtrack, helped launch the grunge era in the early '90s, Velvet Goldmine could be at the center of a glam zeitgeist.



Mining the Velvet

When Todd Haynes began work on Velvet Goldmine, four years ago, he couldn't have predicted that its release would coincide with the massive success of Marilyn Manson's Mechanical Animals (Nothing/Interscope), an album that, like the film, draws its inspiration from David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. Back in '94, grunge was king and any thought that a glam revival might be just beyond the horizon in America would have been fanciful at best. But Velvet Goldmine has arrived just in time to feed on and into what could be the beginning of a new era of glam.

"What's funny about that," Haynes comments over coffee at the Four Seasons, "is that in a way this film feels a little late to me. I was doing most of the research for it in England, and there glam rock came back into discussion as early as 1992, when the first albums by Suede were coming out. And really, it has followed through into Brit-pop, which has been a return to more melodic rock and roll, music that's more unabashedly orchestrated and theatrical. So I was feeling like, 'Oh man, people are going to be yawning by the time my film comes out.' "

Timeliness aside, Haynes was drawn to the project mainly out of interest in the unexploited filmic potential of a period that was as colorful as the glam era. "It was such a visual period," he points out. "And for a visual medium like film it just seemed perfect. Glam was so much about the presentational aspects of performance. I mean, it was really surprising to me that someone hadn't already made a film about the period."

As it happens, Haynes wasn't the only one with that idea. David Bowie had his own plans for a Ziggy Stardust film -- which precluded Haynes from using any of Bowie's music in Velvet Goldmine. "We approached Bowie early on and he put a great deal of thought into it before turning us down. I was disappointed at the time, but I always wanted the film to be a dream of glam rock, not a bio-pic or an official history where you're going to get the dirt on what happened to David Bowie behind closed doors. And I think it might have been harder in the end to approach the film that way if Brian Slade had been singing Bowie songs."

Indeed, Haynes latched on to Citizen Kane as a blueprint for Velvet Goldmine because he wanted to keep the film from seeming too real. "Citizen Kane is the classic example of a film that sets out to tell you who this guy -- Charles Foster Kane -- is and fails brilliantly. What you're left with instead are all the contradictory reactions to him from all the people he touched or destroyed. That was the way I felt comfortable approaching this subject, because I just don't believe in films giving you the right answer. They can ask the right questions, but the answer is your job."


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