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Fifteen minutes into Velvet Goldmine, director Todd Haynes's love letter to England's glam-rock scene of the late Sixties/early Seventies, the film already promises to be many things: a missing-person mystery, a meticulous period piece, an essay on sexually liberated dandyism, a quasi-musical, a portrait of a Machiavellian as aspiring pop star, an attempt to trace glam's lineage to Oscar Wilde (and to allude to his The Picture of Dorian Gray in the process), and a love story. Strangely, Haynes ends up weaving all of these components into something else entirely: a bittersweet fan's tale, one that subtly juxtaposes giddy teenage self-discovery and a mundane adult reality. And for the most part it works. Like most of the director's movies, it's an atypical, generally well-executed oddity; for all its camp touches and potential to be a mere excuse for playing dressup, 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). We soon learn 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) chronicles 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 hedonist 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; 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 obviously based on Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. Wild, meanwhile, is even more obviously 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 onscreen is the Stooges' "T.V. Eye." Bowie himself denied Haynes the right to use his music in Velvet, ostensibly because he wants to save use it for his own glam movie. It's no wonder: Slade is an almost entirely unsympathetic character, an ambitious, self-involved ass. The explanation for his disappearance further paints him as a disingenuous lout and rudderless poser; he may occupy a majority of the screen time, but Slade is no hero.
That distinction goes 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!"; when he masturbates to photos of his idols (extra points to the director for forgoing the now seemingly de rigueur cum shot); even when he simply sits and silently enjoys 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 almost every 1984 scene is marked by poorly lighted, almost 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. It sounds depressing, and it is. But Haynes does not completely close the door on hope.
It seems that nothing excites actors more than portraying rock stars, and the performances here are, pretty much without exception, great. Though he is ostensibly the film's focal point, Slade spends most of his 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 Curt 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, the fact that he studiously avoids it is no surprise. Among the reasons for this: disjointed (but not willfully abstruse) structure; a good, layered script; and great sets and costumes. Also tone: As any film that takes camp as its subject should, Velvet Goldmine is packed with winks and subtly witty allusions. In addition to the Oscar Wilde reference, there's a musical number in which a green humanoid and two inflatable dolls replicate the fast-motion sex scene from A Clockwork Orange; Haynes might well be acknowledging both that film's hedonism/sadism and the marked resemblance between Malcolm McDowell and Rhys-Meyers. Then there is 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 Barbies to tell the Karen Carpenter story.
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