Los Angeles Times

Velvet Goldmine


Friday November 6, 1998

     Dazzling and dizzying, confusing and even annoying, "Velvet Goldmine" is a feverish dream of a film, a riot of color and attitude that is all pop decadence, all night long. Believing like its characters that "style always wins out in the end," it flamboyantly displays the skills and the drawbacks of one of the most gifted of independent filmmakers, writer-director Todd Haynes.
     Haynes' "Poison" won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1991. His Julianne Moore-starring "Safe" was as smart and provocative as independent filmmaking gets, and this work, typically, has a lot on its mind, sometimes more than it can successfully handle.
     "Velvet Goldmine" is best at spotlighting Haynes' showy visual sense, his gorgeous flair for simply playing around with film. Working as usual with accomplished cinematographer Maryse Alberti, Haynes creates wave after wave of images that seem to ripple across the screen. Even though this film can be difficult to follow and at times displays the less-than-subtle character sense of, say, "The Young and the Restless," it is never less than compulsively watchable.
     Haynes' subject in "Velvet Goldmine" is the glam-rock era of the early 1970s, when, a BBC narrator reports, "the streets of London are ablaze with sparkle makeup and glittering frocks," and not just on the women. Artists like David Bowie, Elton John and T. Rex's Marc Bolan mocked the rules of gender fashion, and sexual identity was considered a less than rigid concept.
     "Velvet Goldmine" has not so much re-created the look of those days as artistically re-imagined it with an emphasis on the outrageous. Production designer Christopher Hobbs, makeup and hair designer (don't ask) Peter King and wizardly costume designer Sandy Powell (Oscar nominated for both "Orlando" and "The Wings of the Dove") have combined to operatic effect, creating a world that almost literally makes the head spin.
     Also attention-getting is the film's extensive soundtrack, intended, an opening on-screen note informs, "to be played at maximum volume." With its seamless melange of original recordings (like T. Rex's "Cosmic Dancer"), covers of originals by current bands, and music written for the film in the glam manner, the music is energizing and practically wall to wall. It contributes to "Velvet Goldmine's" ability to convey the excitement and the danger of rock, the posing, the nihilism, the eagerness to shock and the subverted rage that make this music a perennial threat to the status quo.
     Yet another of "Velvet Goldmine's" concerns is conveying the flaunting of pan-sexual androgyny that characterized the period. Furthering that aim is the adroit casting of the two central rock performers and putative lovers, the David Bowiesque Brian Slade, a.k.a. Maxwell Demon (played with grand icy hauteur by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and the wild American proto-punk Curt Wild (the protean Ewan McGregor, who gets to scream, howl and indulge in full-frontal nudity).
     Not everything about this film, however, is impressive. The film's framing device, involving the character of newspaper reporter Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), often feels awkward. We see Stuart both undertaking a "Citizen Kane"-type investigation of rocker Slade in 1984, 10 years after the man's heyday, and, in extended flashbacks, having his own life as a teenager seriously affected by the glam movement.
     After a typically out-there opening sequence linking Oscar Wilde, a mysterious jewel from outer space and a glam-rock avatar named Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland), "Velvet Goldmine" takes us to an infamous 1974 Slade concert that had a profound effect on the man's career and the entire glam movement.
     The rest of Slade's story is told through interviews Stuart conducts with people such as Slade's burned-out ex-wife Mandy (Toni Collette) and his first manager, Cecil (Michael Feast). Making extensive use of outrageous videos, flashbacks, supposed concert footage and TV interviews with the likes of star-maker Jerry Divine (Eddie Izzard), plus a scene using dolls (which echoes Haynes' mind-bending "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story"), the film goes back and forth between several time periods, often not letting the audience know that a flashback has started until we're well into it. It's a mixture that can be intoxicating.
     As the opposites who attracted, Rhys Meyers and McGregor are eye-popping characters on stage, but "Velvet Goldmine's" sporadic attempts to investigate them as real people is less successful. With so much emphasis put on images that delight, provoke and outrage, who can wonder that dramatic insight is not always there for the taking.

Velvet Goldmine, 1998. R, for strong sexual content, nudity, language and drug use. A Zenith Productions/Killer Films production in association with Single Cell Pictures for Newmarket Capital, Goldwyn Films, Miramax Films, Film Four and Zenith, released by Miramax Films. Director Todd Haynes. Producer Christine Vachon. Executive producers Scott Meek, Michael Stipe. Screenplay, Todd Haynes. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti. Editor James Lyons. Costumes, Sandy Powell. Music, Carter Burwell. Production design, Christopher Hobbs. Art director Andrew Munro. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. Ewan McGregor as Curt Wild. Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Brian Slade. Toni Collette as Mandy Slade. Christian Bale as Arthur Stuart. Eddie Izzard as Jerry Divine. Emily Woof as Shannon. Michael Feast as Cecil.

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