Retro Film Review: Velvet Goldmine (1998)

in #aaalast month


1970s nostalgia, phenomenon responsible for the series of usually forgettable Hollywood products in 1990s, affected even some film-makers who are usually associated with art house cinema. One of them was Todd Haynes, who had reached fame with few unconventional and controversial films in 1990s. Velvet Goldmine, his movie dealing with glam rock, 1970s style of British rock music and subculture created around it, was one of the most heavily anticipated films on 1998 Cannes Festival.

After a bizarre prologue that links aliens and Oscar Wilde with contemporary rock musicians, the plot begins in 1974. Glam rock is leading style of popular music in the world, and its undisputed king is flamboyant and openly bisexual British performer Brian Slade (played by Jonathan Rhys-Myers). At one concert he stages mock assassination as a publicity stunt, but his fans aren't amused – his career quickly fades away. Ten years later, in now conservative Reagan's America, journalist Arthur Stuart (played by Christian Bale) is assigned to write an article about the 10th anniversary of the event. For Stuart this task has personal dimension – he was not only great fan of Slade, but Slade's lifestyle also helped him discover his own homosexuality. With Slade vanished from public life, Stuart tries to reconstruct his whereabouts by interviewing his former friends, business associates and ex-wife Mandy (played by Toni Colette). Through flashbacks, the audience follows Slade's career and his fateful encounter with Curt Wild (played by Ewan McGregor) with whom he would cooperate both at stage and in bed.

Haynes has worked very hard in order to reconstruct the past. Many prominent musicians of the era contributed on the original soundtrack that sounds almost indistinguishable from the early 1970s rock. The costumes are authentic and Haynes employs all kinds of inventive film-making techniques in order to bring back the flamboyance, hedonism and atmosphere of excess that had dominated the era.

Unfortunately, whenever film switches from music to people, it stops being that interesting. Haynes, who is openly gay, takes very personal and subjective approach to those times. Glam rock, which was, in its essence, nothing more than clever publicity stunt associated with popular music, is unconvincingly portrayed as some kind of a socio-cultural movement. Haynes would like viewers to believe that the stars of glam rock were on the way to alter the world – their unashamedly unconventional lifestyles, combined with immense popularity, were on the way to finally blur the lines between mainstream and fringe in popular culture, as well as the line between heterosexual majority and homosexual minority. But, for some reason, glam rock faded away and historic opportunity was lost, leading 1980s, in Haynes' mind as bleak and oppressive as in Orwell's dystopic vision.

There is nothing wrong in interpreting history from personal perspective, but in Velvet Goldmine it often looks pretentious and preposterous. Narrative technique, which is unashamedly taken from Citizen Kane, only adds to that effect. Haynes makes another mistake by having two instead of one protagonist. Each of them, despite being played by otherwise dependable actors, isn't that particularly interesting. Androgynous Slade, whose life revolves about nothing more than self-gratification and excess, only underlines the emptiness of the whole glam rock phenomenon – something that Haynes desperately tries to avoid. More realistic and down-to-earth character of Stuart isn't that convincing because he just happens to have some kind of "magic" connection with his youth idol. But the most annoying element of Haynes' film is pacing – the ending happens at least half an hour later than it should. By that point most of the audience is likely to agree that the cultural phenomenon described in Velvet Goldmine should remain the thing of the past.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on February 28th 2005)

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