Velvet Goldmine Reviews
A stylized, nearly documentary-style look at the years of glam rock with great cinematography, even if its ending feels laggy.
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 quite 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, possibly even an 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 "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 memories 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.
As that was the sense of my expectation I can certainly say that Velvet Goldmine catered to my hopes, but the convoluted narrative style was most unprecedented for me. Ensuring that audiences are not mislead by the project, the tagline for Velvet Goldmine is "Leave your expectations at the door" which is perhaps the most truthful tagline I have ever heard for any feature film. Having later discussed Velvet Goldmine with he who recommended it to me , it was explained to me that the characters Brian Slade and Curt Wild were allegorical representations of musicians David Bowie and Iggy Pop respectively. Upon further reading I learned that there was more to it than even that, but the simple fact is that as a viewer who didn't grow up during the heyday of these musicians and who is not educated enough on musical history to recognize this symbolism, it becomes all the more difficult to understand the true value of the film beneath its already complicated plot structure.
Velvet Goldmine is like a tale of The Beatles on an acid trip through an episode of Are You Being Served?. By that I mean the film is a very trippy experience, combining a lot of electric colours and intense atmosphere with a non-linear story structure which weaves the tales of multiple characters into a single film, creating an experience which can be intentionally very convoluted. Though the stylish energy of the film in terms of tone, visuals and soundtrack certainly provide the appropriate mood for the glam rock that the narrative is modeled after, the genuine coherence of the narrative is not one that viewers are likely to embrace if they don't recognize the messages buried within the film. The narrative style explored by director Todd Haynes is one he would later touch upon again with his surrealist Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There (2007) where he explored things more directly with greater clarity, structure and consistent sensibility. In that sense it can be argued that Velvet Goldmine provided the director a step in the right direction towards establishing a greater sense of style as a filmmaker which would progressively develop into a better sense of structure.
Either way, one thing I can certify is that the overall tone of the film is rather intriguing. Velvet Goldmine maintains a trippy nature which is established by Todd Haynes' sense of style. Merging the film's timely soundtrack with strong imagery, the mood is practically hypnotic. The cinematography of the film is consistently atmospheric and works to find imagery in everything it captures which means finding life in the scenery, but more importantly it is the Academy Award nominated costumes that provide the most colour to the experience. The feeling of glam rock is established through various means in Velvet Goldmine, but the dedication to colourful detail in the costumes alone supply more than enough to bring that feeling to prominence. And though the story is very loosely tied together, the manner in which the multiple narratives are weaved together through quick edits and moments of musical charge are essential to establishing the trippy mood of the feature. I can't say that I fully understood Velvet Goldmine, but I can certify that I got a certain sense of enjoyment out of the quick-moving style of the feature even if the enjoyment was sporadic at best.
And though a lack of narrative structure stands in the way of character development, this does not mean that a talented collection of performances is mutually exclusive from the film.
Between his breakout performance in Trainspotting (1996) and his franchise success in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), Ewan McGregor decided to take on the role of Curt Wild in Velvet Goldmine. Capturing a free-spirited energy and edgy nature reminiscent of Kurt Cobain, Ewan McGregor stands out amongst the cast in Velvet Goldmine for being both one of the most recognizable cast members and for his ability to truly bring the material to life when he needs to. Amid the chaotic narrative are some truly powerful moments of intense drama that Ewan McGregor is responsible for delivering, and his ability to bring both this and a restrained flamboyant energy to his role is a most definite asset. Ewan McGregor's charms are an asset to any film that has the privelege of using them, and Velvet Goldmine is no exception.
When I first saw the face of Christian Bale on the screen, I had no idea what to say. Since the man is currently an accomplished dramatic actor with an Academy Award and the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy to his name, to see his face in a such an unconventional role is an unexpected but most welcome trait for Velvet Goldmine. His voice articulation channels a different accent to anything else he has tackled before, and with it comes the line delivery of an organic charm and sophistication. Christian Bale is an actor who continues to impress, even with performances from years ago.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers also delivers a firm effort. Though he may not have the same legacy as many of those around him, Jonathan Rhys Meyers remains notorious in Velvet Goldmine for the way that he easily embraces the mood of everything around him. Keeping up with all the story twists, Jonathan Rhys Meyers makes a firm effort to ensure his status as the lead of Velvet Goldmine is the furthest thing from miscast. Jonathan Rhys Meyers delivers a skilful performance where he effectively demonstrates an understanding of the entire universe around him no matter how complicated it is, and his young charm is fueled with charisma.
So Velvet Goldmine boasts an effective vision into director Todd Haynes' sense of style and his passion for glam rock, but the musical allegories of the story get lost amid a convoluted structure and an obsession with style over substance.