Fifteen minutes into Velvet Goldmine, director Todd Haynes's love letter to England's glam-rock scene of the late '60s/early '70s, the film has already promised to be many things: a missing-person mystery, a meticulous period piece, an essay on sexually liberated dandyism, a quasi-musical, a portrait of the Machiavellian as an aspiring pop star, an attempt to trace glam's lineage to Oscar Wilde (and to allude to his The Picture of Dorian Gray), and a love story.
Strangely, Haynes ends up weaving all of those components into something else entirely -- a bittersweet fan's tale, one that subtly juxtaposes giddy teenaged self-discovery with a mundane adult reality. And for the most part it works. Like most of Haynes's movies, it's an atypical, generally well-executed oddity; for all of its camp touches and tendency to play dress-up, Velvet Goldmine ends up as a surprisingly resonant costume party.
After an unnecessary and somewhat clunky prologue that spells out its Oscar Wilde connections in giant capital letters, Goldmine opens with the 1974 onstage murder of androgynous pop star Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). It's soon revealed that the murder was a hoax that subsequently ruined Slade's career; he disappeared a short time afterward. Cut to New York, 1984: British journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is assigned a "whatever happened to" story on Slade. A series of flashbacks during interviews with Slade's ex-manager (Michael Feast) and ex-wife (Toni Collette) chronicle the singer's rise from wavy-haired, befrocked fruit loop to blue-haired, cross-dressing pop icon who has created his own alter ego, Maxwell Demon.
Along the way Slade first idolizes, then befriends, then has an affair with American rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), whose hedonistic abandon and protopunk sound Slade appropriates to his own ends. And as the story unfolds, it clearly resonates with the journalist for personal reasons. Throughout, the Slade-Wild saga is intercut with extensive scenes of Stuart's youth: his discovery of glam and his excited, complete identification with it; his split with his parents; and his arrival on the London scene.
Though the film's plot and characters are fictionalized, there's no mistaking Haynes's major models: Slade -- the stylistically confused, aspiring star who steals someone else's shtick, creates his own fictional character, then kills him -- is clearly based on Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. Wild, meanwhile, is even more clearly based on Iggy Pop: He's from Michigan, he's an addict, he's a lunatic. Slade signs on as his producer, and the first song he sings on screen is the Stooges' "TV Eye." Bowie himself refused to allow Haynes the use of his music in Velvet, ostensibly because he wants to use it for his own glam movie. It's no wonder: Slade is an almost entirely unsympathetic character, an ambitious, self-involved ass; the ultimate explanation for his disappearance further paints him as a disingenuous lout and rudderless poseur. He may occupy a majority of the screen time, but Slade is no hero.
That distinction would go to journalist Stuart; it's his story that's ultimately the most affecting. Through him, Haynes wonderfully captures the excitement of first discovering something that speaks directly to you. The most unassuming of his scenes can turn touchingly comic -- when he jumps up and down in his parents' living room, pointing at Slade on the television and screaming, "That's me! That's me!"; or when he masturbates to photos of his idols (extra points to the director for foregoing the now seemingly de rigueur cum shot); even when he simply sits and silently pores over one of Slade's albums. And the latter-day passages of the adult journalist put those moments in rather dark relief.
By contrast, the grown-up Stuart seems resigned, and most every 1984 scene is marked by poorly lighted, oppressive surroundings: a hospital, two bars, a small apartment, and an industrial office space. The colorful glam youth was but a dream; reality, it seems, is decidedly less sexy. If it sounds depressing, well, it is. But Haynes does not entirely close the door on hope.
Nothing seems to excite actors more than portraying rock stars, and the performances here are, pretty much without exception, great. Though he's ostensibly the film's focal point, Slade spends most of his screen time either singing or walking around looking petulant. The pouty, full-lipped, pretty-boy visage of Rhys-Meyers is more than up to that task. McGregor, meanwhile, is hilarious as Jack Wild, stumbling and stripping his way through the part with obvious delight. And Bale plays Stuart with the kind of subdued intensity required to make the payoff worthwhile.
The basic plot has obvious potential for cable-movie triteness, but given the director's track record, it's no surprise that he studiously avoids it. Among the reasons for this: disjointed (but not willfully obtuse) structure; a good, layered script; and great sets and costumes. And also tone: As any film that takes camp as its subject should be, Velvet Goldmine is packed with winks and subtly witty allusions. Besides the above-mentioned Oscar Wilde reference, there's the musical number in which a green humanoid and two inflatable dolls replicate the fast-motion sex scene from A Clockwork Orange; one imagines that Haynes is acknowledging both that film's hedonism/sadism and the marked resemblance here between Malcolm McDowell and Rhys-Meyers.
Then there are the frenetic streets-of-London opening and the subtitled nightclub sequence, both reminiscent of Trainspotting, which made McGregor a star. And Haynes also targets himself; the most explicit sex scene between Wild and Slade is executed using toy dolls of the two singers -- a clear tongue/cheek nod to the director's oddly engaging Superstar (1987) and its use of Barbie Dolls to tell the Karen Carpenter story.
Only in one regard does Haynes miscalculate, and (ironically enough) it's with the music. Specifically, there's too much of it. A song plays prominently in almost every scene. Fine. The logic there is obvious, and the soundtrack -- featuring songs by T. Rex, Roxy Music, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, and few modern-day approximations thereof -- is well-chosen. But there are also a bunch of performance sequences/faux-video-type situations, and while it could be argued that their accompanying lyrics sometimes serve as plot devices, the scenes/songs ultimately become grating. At least the last three are actively annoying; you feel the whole thing gaining momentum, only to be stopped cold by yet another sequence of Rhys-Meyers fopping around to some glam tune. It may have started as a device, but it ends by descending into mannerism.
Then again, maybe Haynes just knew his subject too well; being blinded by one's own prettiness was no small part of the glam manifesto. If so, it's to the director's further credit that he was able to extract something meaningful from all that preening.
Directed by Todd Haynes. With Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Christian Bale and Toni Collette. Rated R.The Alarmist. Directed by Evan Dunsky. With David Arquette, Stanley Tucci, Kate Capshaw and Mary McCormack.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.