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Music Movie Mondays: The screen dreams of Velvet Goldmine

August 2, 2010

Few scenes excite me as much as the opening credits sequence semiotician Todd Haynes cooks up in 1998’s Velvet Goldmine.

A UFO (or satellite of love?) transports an infant named Oscar Wilde into Dublin and literary history. Wilde’s subsequent childhood predates fictional glam rock pioneer Jack Fairy’s by nearly a century but is linked by a bejeweled talisman and articulated queer identity. Once the connection is made, we’re transported to a group of British teenagers stampeding to a concert. Their revelry is accompanied by the strains of Brian Eno’s “Needle in the Camel’s Eye.”

One of the many things this movie gets right is costume designer Sandy Powell’s construction of second-hand frippery. The teens’ clothes are cheap, recycled, ill-fitting, and garish. The lurid color palette emphasizes their acne, pancake make-up, and box dye jobs and washes out a uniform pasty complexion only occasionally challenged by the lone female fan or entourage member of African descent. It also clashes with England’s polite industrialized society, anticipating punk’s cultural anarchy. Powell won her first Oscar for Miramax’s favored child Shakespeare in Love, but her nomination for Velvet Goldmine deserved the prize.

Powell’s sartorial bricolage is as good as any point of inquiry into what is otherwise a difficult movie. Haynes’s half-hearted attempt at a David Bowie biopic eschews many conventions. In this dream world, Citizen Kane rubs elbows with Jean Genet. Thom Yorke and then-contemporary artists Pulp, Grant Lee Buffalo, Donna Matthews, Teenage Fanclub, Placebo, and Shudder to Think interpret the canon or create stylistically appropriate songs. American women pop in and out of English accents and British children idolize Little Richard. Characters are mutants sutured from an assemblage of historical figures and legends: Brian Slade spawns from Bowie, Marc Bolan, and Jobriath; Curt Wild shares biographies with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed; Fairy splits the difference between Roxy Music’s Brian Eno and Bryan Ferry. Their actions may be actual, fictive, or printed legend.

Some may bristle at the lack of straightforward historical narrative, in large part the result of Bowie unwilling to sign over the rights to his story. I’m of the mind that this is to Haynes’s advantage, because pop idols are malleable creatures, cast as smitten Ken dolls, 30s starlets, album art pin-ups, lovers, and video stars lip syncing to a panoply of others’ vocal tracks. They are emblems for fans’ desires. But for the people who love them, those desires are very real.

At its heart, Velvet Goldmine is a period piece. It may not be especially concerned with factual accuracy, but it does capture glam rock’s mid-70s heyday in Great Britain. It focuses on Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and his meteoric rise as alter ego Maxwell Demon, whom he suddenly abandons once the pressures of fame prove too taxing. His counterpoint is Curt Wild (Ewan MacGregor), a mesmerizing and troubled rock performer. Meyers is a limited actor, but does a credible job playing a holographic figure, proving to the audience the pop stars are, by definition, bad actors. MacGregor is well-used here, able to nail Reed’s laconic speech and approximate the unfilmable chaos of Pop’s anarchic persona.

But Velvet Goldmine is actually about Arthur Stuart (an indelible Christian Bale), who came of age through their music. By the mid-1980s, he is an ex-pat American journalist out to uncover what happened to Slade. Through interviewing Slade’s former manager-lover Cecil (Michael Feast) and ex-wife Mandy (Toni Collette), Stuart gets some sense of the story. He also ascertains that Slade became larger-than-life pop star Tommy Stone (Alastair Cumming) and reunites with Wild after a chance meeting during his youth.

More importantly, he confronts a past that saw him nurturing a nascent homosexual identity. This resulted in harassment, familial shame, and a forced exodus from domestic comfort that allowed him to create friend groups and forge a singular path for himself. But no matter his age, he’s never far removed from the lonely boy in his room, poring over his records behind a closed door. The strange pin he inherits from Wild confirms it.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Citizen Taqueau permalink
    August 3, 2010 12:41 am

    Is it just me, or is the starry opening musical sequence reminiscent of the Prelude track to _Time_ by ELO?

  2. August 5, 2010 6:43 pm

    I love this movie. My friend Mik gave it to me after she watched it once, saying “This movie made me think of you… I don’t know whether it was the music, decadence, or Ewan MacGregor’s glittery junk, but this seemed like a movie you should have.” I took that as a compliment.

    I think it’s time to plug in the VCR so I can watch it again!


  1. Music Movie Mondays with I Fry Mine in Butter: Velvet Goldmine « Feminist Music Geek

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