While introducing his latest film, Velvet Goldmine, during the New York Film Festival, director Todd Haynes likened it to an acid trip whose hallucinatory effects, though barely noticeable at first, would take hold of us and not let go until the lights came up. Indeed, the vast majority of the audience stayed on through the film's final credits, as if they wished to stay submerged in the film's stupor for as long as possible. Like any good narcotic experience, Velvet Goldmine creates a wild high. When it is over, however, it leaves us hating ourselves for enjoying something so superficially pleasing.
But what a high it is! Velvet Goldmine hurls us into the rarefied world of glam-rock, a 1970s subculture that combined flower power, drag, and rock'n'roll. It tells the story of Brian Slade, a fictionalized glam-rock deity. Slade's erratic career trajectory, which closely resembles David Bowie's, takes him from London's gay bars to the amateur concert world and ultimately to super stardom, only to have him fall into disrepute after he fakes his own assassination during a concert. These events are recounted in a non-linear fashion by a reporter named Arthur Stuart who is trying to find out what happened when Slade mysteriously disappeared after the fake shooting. Stuart tracks down Slade's former wife, his manager, and his rock partner who each provide the central flashbacks of the movie.
Velvet Goldmine essentially combines the structure of Citizen Kane and the visual style of A Clockwork Orange, with some of the musical camp of The Rocky Horror Picture Show thrown in the pot, too. The staged assassination is the "rosebud," the central mystery that unravels the life of the hero. The flashback sequences borrow unabashedly from Clockwork's in-your-face visual anarchy. There is the swerving hand-held camera, the defiant costumes worn by the young hero, and the surreal sets that turn London into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. While Velvet Goldmine is not officially a musical, it breaks into song so frequently that it could qualify as a music video anthology. These sequences do not move the plot along, but their visual outlandishness establishes the look and feel of the glam-rock world in a way that would have pleased its raunchiest denizens.
Borrowing heavily from these three classic films gives Velvet Goldmine respectability by association it doesn't really deserve. It also prevents director Todd Haynes from finding his own unique way of telling the story. By shifting so frequently from Kane mode to Clockwork mode to Rocky Horror mode and back again, Velvet Goldmine feels like three separate movies that have been minced and tossed together. Haynes' own vision never gets room to breathe or grow, and as a result, the storytelling lacks an authoritative voice. His previous film, Safe, created a more consistent, un-compromised narrative. Each scene in Safe fit into his over-arching vision of a Los Angeles plagued by germs, some natural, others man-made. Velvet Goldmine doesn't have Safe's unity because it is essentially an amalgamation of three disparate styles forced to co-exist in the same story.
Haynes has more success evoking a collective glam-rock persona, which he does through the life of Brian Slade. Slade is not so much a fully realized character as he is a sprawling personification of the entire subculture. He is played by newcomer John Rhys Meyers whose androgyny embodies the desire of all glam-rockers to inhabit the nether regions between man and woman, gay and straight, singer and performance artist, and most importantly, introvert and extrovert. For beneath his sequined body suits, blue powdered wigs, and kabuki-like makeup lives an isolated individual who would like to cut himself off from society, but whose shocking individuality thrusts him into the public eye. This paradox lies at the heart of Velvet Goldmine. Haynes conveys it not through words or even music, but through Rhys Meyers' piercing eyes. They give off a cold intensity that communicates a sense of paradise lost. Through them, we understand that at the core of glam-rock culture is not the desire to shock, but the longing to live alone.
Rhys Meyers is perfectly cast as Slade, but because he exists only in flashbacks, he remains distant and removed from us. Therefore Meyers is not the film's central character. That distinction belongs to Arthur Stuart, the reporter who uncovers the Slade mystery. Stuart comes from a working class Manchester family. As a teenager, he was a glam-rock fan who harbored an unhealthy obsession with Slade and his American singing partner, Curt Wild. When as an adult he gets the chance to cover the shooting, the teenager and the adult come together with unexpected poignancy. Christian Bale, who plays Stuart, understates the scenes in which he comes to terms with his teenage obsession. And he leaves the door open just enough to suggest that the obsession lives on in the adult, although in a muted form. Less convincing is Ewan McGregor as Curt Wild, whom Slade idolizes and then brings on board as singing partner and, eventually, lover. But McGregor puts too much Kurt Cobain and not enough Curt Wild into his performance, resulting in a distracting anachronism.
Todd Haynes has a lot of respect for glam-rock culture, and maybe that is why his movie never feels complete. He has allowed his awe of the subject to overtake his cinematic voice. While he re-creates the music and the clothes with careful detail, he lets his storytelling veer wildly like a child in a fun house. This is a shame because Haynes has obviously given his subject a great deal of thought. He has infused his characters with interesting hypocrisies and surprisingly subdued yearnings. (He even goes as far as to contextualize glam-rockers as the spiritual children of Oscar Wilde, who was one of the first artists to fuse art and sexual ambiguity.) But because Haynes never imposes stylistic order on his perspective, he dims the wattage on his own insights. When the lights come up and our acid high has worn off, we realize that Velvet Goldmine is really just the high-voltage shadow of a more restrained film.
[rating: 3 of 4 stars]
Related link: New York Film Festival Web Site