Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Overlooked Gems #33: Velvet Goldmine


Grade: 92 (A)

Todd Haynes made big waves with his Karen Carpenter tribute Superstar, and unconventional 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There brought him perhaps the most widespread attention of any of his works. But the best and most personalof his tributes to pop music is also the least famous and least successful of the bunch: 1998’s glam-rock fantasia Velvet Goldmine. Miramax famously botched the film’s release, and many critics knocked its unconventional narrative and excess. But the film has gained traction among certain circles (glam-rock fans, theatre people, hardcore cineastes) as both an affectionate tribute to one musical era and a takedown of another.

Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) was a glam-rock superstar who, for a brief period in the 1970s, conquered the world. But when he staged a shooting in the middle of one of his concerts, his popularity took a nose-dive. In 1984, British reporter Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is asked by his editor to cover the tenth-anniversary of the Slade shooting hoax. The story takes Stuart to Slade’s party-girl ex-wife Mandy (Toni Collette), punk rocker ex-lover Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), and Stuart’s own memories as a gay teen whose love of glam-rock liberated him from his repressed background.

Velvet Goldmine is a crazily ambitious movie: it takes its “reporter trying to learn about an inscrutable icon” structure from Citizen Kane. It features wall-to-wall music and production design. It spans at three decades worth of artistic reinvention. It bases its main characters on David Bowie (Slade) and Iggy Pop (Wild). It deals with heavy homosexual themes in a way that’s almost designed to alienate anyone with a modicum of hesitation towards the subject. Oh, and it features heady references to Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, and Jean Genet. It is, in short, a film that appeals only to a certain niche of people. But the film isn’t the narrative mess it’s often labeled as, but rather a highly rigorous and emotional piece of art.

Haynes looks at the glam-rock 70s scene as a world full of mystery, liberating sexuality, and confusion. It’s a gloriously excessive era where the central figure’s appeal is the fact that no one can quite figure him out. Slade is such a dominant force that he’s able to bring new attention to an uncontrollable force of nature like Wild, convince young straight kids to experiment with sexuality, and inspire gay teens like Arthur to go against his homophobic English hometown. Rhys-Meyers never found another role that suited him quite as well as an androgynous space-alien of a pop star, while McGregor brings wild card energy to his Iggy Pop-inspired character. Collette, best embodies the over-the-top party all night spirit of the times that’s destined to burn out, be it from heartbreak, AIDS (implied throughout), or drugs; Eddie Izzard’s juicy turn as a huckster manager best reminds us that the music business is still an ugly business.

The real key to the film’s success, beyond creating an exciting and original world, is Bale in a role that marks a transition from the talented young actor of Empire of the Sun to the fiercely committed method actor of American Psycho. Where Rhys-Meyers provides the mystery and McGregor the anarchic spirit, Bale is the film’s heart. Early scenes showing his infatuation with Slade and Wild and how it contrasts with his close-minded parents and friends show the glories and the fears of the time. He has a newfound freedom, but he faces ridicule wherever he goes. He escapes to the glam scene (and an uninhibited sexual encounter with Ewan McGregor that’ll make anyone question their sexuality), but he can only escape for so long. In the film’s Kane-inspired framing device, he’s another working stiff (now in America), one without any real relationships or sense of liberation. He’s in a repressed 1984 that both recalls Orwell’s novel and the more repressed Reagan/Thatcher 80s. Bale’s final words bring a wistful sense of affection for his youth: “He called it a freedom. A freedom you can allow yourself…or not”. 

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