Director Todd Haynes has made his name on extremely stylized films that play around with the rules of linear plotlines and characterization, defying the normal methods of those things. His film I’m Not There features five different actors playing the same part, each in five segments of the story. Those segments even use different kinds of film in order to make them distinct from each other. That might sound confusing, but it’s helpful in the end since the segments are all jumbled together, one cutting in before the previous one was actually finished.
His movie Velvet Goldmine shows his willingness to experiment and to veer off into uncharted territory, some of which didn’t need to be charted in the first place. The setting of the movie is late 60s/early 70s Britain, as well as mid 80s America. In the 80s, a journalist for an American paper is assigned to do some digging and find out whatever happened to Brian Slade, a British glam rock superstar in the 70s who faked his own death on stage and faded into obscurity when it was revealed to be a sham. The film also tells the story of Brian Slade, his general anonymity in the late 60s until getting discovered, his rise to glory in the early 70s, and his extremely complicated relationship with wife Mandy Slade and fellow musician Curt Wild.
This should sound familiar. Todd Haynes veils his historical accounts incredibly thinly, almost to the point of not veiling them at all. Brian Slade is in effect David Bowie, and Curt Wild is Iggy Pop. Curt and his band the Rats even perform “T.V.Eye,” an actual Stooges song. The origin of the band’s name is that rat is a synonym for stooge, meaning someone who gives away his fellow criminals to the authorities. Brian’s name is significant, too. Brian is an ordinary name, much like David, and Slade is the name of a slightly obscure 70s glam rock band. The name of Slade’s band is Venus In Furs, borrowing from the 1967 Velvet Underground song of the same name.
Also in the mix is a character named Jack Fairy, who serves as the originator of the entire glam scene. His name is rather like Brian Ferry, lead singer and multi-instrumentalist of the glam band Roxy Music, several of whose songs appear in the film. Even the very name of the film, Velvet Goldmine, borrows from a Bowie song of the same name, written and recorded during the Ziggy Stardust sessions, but not released until 1975 as a b-side.
In the movie, a huge part of the glam takeover of both the music scene and the British youth is the shifting (and sometimes casting-off) of sexual morays. It was much the same in the real world; Bowie himself says that his declaration of bisexuality was a small mistake in hindsight, because it was much more about its social meanings and effects than actual sexual preference. As Curt Wild says in the movie, “you can’t just fake being gay.”
If the similarities extended far beyond the names and circumstances, Velvet Goldmine would be downright insulting to Bowie, Pop and everyone associated with them. In the film, Slade and Wild have a sexual relationship, despite the fact that Brian is married to Mandy. At the beginning of his popularity, Slade announces that both he and his wife are bisexual, as well as indiscriminate with their sexual lives. Luckily, Velvet Goldmine avoids presenting history and takes a wild tangent into the fictional; the very suggestion of Oscar Wilde being a space alien is enough for us to take the whole movie with a giant-sized grain of salt.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ portrayal of Brian Slade is one of sinister defiance and cold self-advancement, almost sociopathic. Bowie, in actuality, is not like that at all. He broke from societal norms to be sure, but he treated it as natural and normal for him. He wasn’t vicious or belligerent like Slade is. In all the press interviews I’ve seen, Bowie is polite and even a little shy. Slade, on the other hand, makes statements designed to infuriate and cause controversy. “Rock and roll is a prostitute.” “Nothing makes one so vain as being told one is a sinner.” “I should think that if people were to get the wrong impression of me, the one to which you so elegantly refer, it wouldn’t be the wrong impression in the slightest.”
Slade purposely arranges himself to be in opposition to the establishment. He does what rock stars have been doing for ages, and it’s wholly unoriginal. Bowie, on the other hand, is told that normal people don’t do the things he does, and he shrugs and says, “No? Hmmm.”
Brian Slade’s relationship with his wife doesn’t really mirror Bowie’s, either. Brian and Mandy’s marriage had an over-abundance of infatuation but an utter lack of love. Bowie had lots of love for his wife Angie, and likewise a stinking ton for the son he had with her (of whom Velvet Goldmine makes no mention). David and Angie’s relationship didn’t really disintegrate until Bowie’s Thin White Duke stage, where he descended into extreme cocaine use. Slade’s connection to his wife becomes inconsequential by the time they get their divorce, but Bowie’s is clearly important to him all the way. He wrote and performed a simple and lovely song called “Be My Wife” on his 1977 album Low as a last ditch effort to preserve his marriage. It didn’t work; they divorced in 1980.
Curt Wild, played by Ewan McGregor in his pre-Obi Wan days, is much closer to his real world model, Iggy Pop. His first appearance in the movie, performing “T.V. Eye” to about 100 people in the middle of a forest, is spot-on exactly what a Stooges performance was like, complete with Wild defiantly dropping his pants. Curt Wild is drugged out, uncaring, chaotic and unpredictably dangerous. The name “Wild” is very appropriate.
Velvet Goldmine is one unholy mess of a movie. It has an incredibly sloppy plot structure and deplorable excess of visual flair that comes off as ham-fisted instead of beautiful. That’s balanced by its stellar performances by its principle actors and its devastatingly awesome soundtrack. But the reason I watch it over and over again – and felt it necessary to write this review – is that even though it’s extremely irresponsible with history and fact, the way it presents that history is infinitely fascinating. Being a student of music history, especially appealing to me is presenting an alternate form of it. Todd Haynes has created a behemoth of wonder and interest, but it will only be so for an extreme sliver of the movie-watching public.
Next: the fox on the rocks.