In Velvet Goldmine, a British journalist (Christian Bale) in Orwellian New York City (it’s no coincidence the film is set in 1984) backtracks his way through history while trying to research the whereabouts of a glam-rock icon, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). This Citizen Kane structure provides the narrative backbone for Todd Haynes’s freewheeling ode to 1970s glitter. The film opens with the audacious birth of Oscar Wilde, who drops from the heavens from a flying saucer and later declares while attending boy’s school that he’d like to be a pop idol when he grows up. The Wilde sequence gives way to young Jack Fairy (a Jack Smith/Andy Warhol figure played by non-actor Micko Westmoreland) finding Wilde’s brooch and discovering inspiration for the fop-meets-outer-space fashion of his time: teenage boys and girls who paint their nails, preen, rock n’ roll, and break all sorts of sexual rules.
Fairy inspires the rising superstar Slade (a stand-in for David Bowie), and Slade’s mad dog boyfriend Curt Wild (playfully interpreted by Ewan McGregor, sending up the obnoxious rock star antics of Iggy Pop but more accurately brining to mind the sensitive Kurt Cobain). Bisexuality is seen by Fairy and his fellow rock n’ roll movers and shakers as a fashion statement, a code, and, finally, a blur between constricting societal lines. It finds means of expression through pop music, and Velvet Goldmine focuses in on the Slade/Wild relationship that extends and destroys Fairy’s vision. Through sex, fiery concert sequences, even a cameo from Superstar-style Barbie dolls, Haynes charts the rise and fall of a love affair (first glimpsed as a romantic car ride where Slade and Wilde cruise through a laser light show, to the tune of Lou Reed’s aching “Satellite of Love”) against the backdrop of the times.
Repeat viewings will allow one to piece together the fragmented montage as a melancholic ode to freedom, and those who fight for it through art. These sexually charged revolutionaries (including McGregor’s snarling mad variation of Iggy, dropping trousers before diving through onstage flames) don’t comprehend their politically charged acts until the Reagan era catches up with them, and those without ideals drop out or sell out. The final meeting between Bale and McGregor’s characters in the dark end of some dive is initially depressing (“We set out to change the world.” “What’s wrong with that?” “Nothing, if you don’t look at the world.”). But the reappearance of an Oscar Wilde pendant (a reaffirmation of what the music does for the listener) gives poignancy, depth, and hope to the climax.
Velvet Goldmine is a rollicking good ride, thanks to Todd Haynes’s haunting, colorful, and poetically vivid images and expressive, soulful performances from the entire cast, which includes Toni Collette as Slade’s trend-shifting wife. (Eddie Izzard steals every scene as a canny manager with the temerity of a young Oliver Reed.) Some nagging critics accuse Haynes of being too academic a filmmaker, which is to say they’re terrified of a movie with so many ideas. They’re so intimidated by an examination of the ever-shifting culture to see that Velvet Goldmine is also about the emotions and desires attached to those changing times. Music is the great equalizer between mind, body, and soul—and Haynes views glam rock as an art form that allowed means of expression for a band of outsiders. Someday, the whole stinking world will be theirs.