The glam rock era of the 1970s was a time of sexual experimentation, gaudy fashion, and surprisingly ballsy music. Coming at the tail end of the free love hippie movement of the 1960s, it was a period that was characterized as being seemingly fearless and disapproving of societal normalities, curious about gender fluidity and about as obsessed with exterior glamour as the ‘20s were at their most roaring. It’s among the most instantaneously recognizable movements in music history — good thing much of the work remains to be timeless. Then all the free-wheeling would be for nothing.
1998’s Velvet Goldmine, a bouncy pleasuring of bonkers visual patina, is arresting in the way it captures the glam era’s flamboyancy. Though inevitably capturing the darkness of certain aspects of the time, it retains the romanticism we place upon it, from its incessant self-indulgence to the pulsating confidence of its defining figures.
It’s a biopic of sorts, revolving around a central figure that is suspiciously a lot like David Bowie. Bowie is, of course, smarter, less periodically legendary, and more calculated in his theatrical showing-offs. But I think Velvet Goldmine isn’t so much intent on telling the story of a fake pop idol as it is intent on paying homage to glam rock’s insanity, using the characters as placeholders to make it all seem like more than just inspired, kinetic style.
It is set in 1984, where the days of Ziggy Stardust and KISS are long gone and where cynical grit has replaced the exciting (and perhaps cinematically bloated) liberties of the 1970s. Such a year does not mean much to most people unless we’re talking about George Orwell’s literary masterpiece, but to Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a tabloid journalist, it means a great deal. It marks for the tenth anniversary of the disappearance of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a bodacious, bisexual rock icon who staged his own assassination (later proven to be a hoax).
Arthur, gay and introverted, looked to Slade during his youth as though he were a sort of god. Growing up in a conservative household, the musician’s music and image were the closest thing he ever felt to social acceptance. And so Slade, whose false murder he witnessed, is perhaps even more important to him than his own father, being a symbol of the boundless self-expression he’s never been able to emulate. Since that traumatic event in 1974, it’s assumed that Arthur has had a hard time recovering. So lucky for him that his boss assigns him to investigate the hoax further, to discover why Slade did what he did and maybe even find out where the rocker currently plays house.
He gets leads from several of Slade’s closest confidants, most notably his ex-socialite ex-wife Mandy (Toni Collette), and is given information that any fanatic would kill to discover. Most compelling is his relationship with Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), a comparatively batshit idol with whom he had a brief but influential professional and personal affiliation. Finding Slade, though, is a challenge, teetering on the edge of impossibility. It’s as if he were banished from a land where the citizens actually wanted him, as if the progression from superstardom to reclusiveness were more natural than simply announcing a hiatus or a permanent retirement.
In essence, I’ve just relayed the general gist of Velvet Goldmine. Like director Todd Haynes’s similarly challenging (but not as successful) I’m Not There (2007), a Bob Dylan biopic that employed six actors to play the man, it doesn’t much have a necessarily streamlined plot. Slade is only seen through flashback. Every time Arthur interviews someone, their recountings are fashioned into the form of a memory, giving us diverse tellings of Slade that are more investing because of their musical sequences and their orgies of visual opulence, not because the elusive character is so multifaceted and interesting himself.
Admittedly, Velvet Goldmine’s breakneck speed and habit of getting too lost in its mystique makes it seem ethereal instead of grounded. It feels more like an exercise in style than a meaningful work, which is disappointing considering the dramatic possibility that could grow from material of its caliber. But it’s so lusciously rendered and so fetchingly tuneful that resisting its superfluities is a losing fight. Haynes has all the right moves, and Meyers and McGregor are astonishingly good as would-be glam rockers. (Meyers easily could have fit into the era had he been born earlier and had he tried.) Velvet Goldmine gets a little carried away, but there’s nothing wrong with an explosion of color when the occasion arises. B+