Velvet Goldmine (1997)

D: Todd Haynes
S: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ewan McGregor

Visually arresting, frequently hypnotic account of the rise and disappearance of a glam rock star (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) whose life and career resembles that of David Bowie. The story is told largely in flashback as reporter Christian Bale (Empire of the Sun) is sent on assignment to find out whatever happened to the former teen idol after a notorious publicity stunt where he staged his own death. When the reporter interviews the star's ex-wife (Toni Collette of Muriel's Wedding) in a dark, seedy bar where she lounges around as a physical and metaphorical shadow of her former self, you are made painfully aware of the fact that director Todd Haynes has seen Citizen Kane and would like to see his film following at least some of its example. The film is not quite as literal as that though. In fact much of it is defiantly loose on a narrative level, resorting instead to fantasy, hallucination, and speculation to fill in its gaps between scenes of performance of all kinds. This is really what it is most concerned with: the roleplay and slippage of identity and identification which goes on in the world of the pop idol and his fans. Although different parts of the story are told by different individuals as in Citizen Kane, a significant element of the tale is also the effect the star's popularity and eschewing of traditional sexual boundaries had upon the reporter himself in his youth. This makes the journey to the centre of the labyrinth as much about a search for a sense of self relevant to one's own past as it is a postmodernist pastiche of more referential forms of screen biography. One senses that there is something deeply personal about this for co-writer and director Haynes, but the audience doesn't always share his emotional connection with the material.

Despite the authorial gymnastics, it is the technical credits which stand out here. Director of photography Maryse Alberti, production designer Christopher Hobbs, art director Andrew Munro, costume designer Sandy Powell, and makeup and hair designer Peter King are all to be commended for their recreation and exploration of the colourful and exuberant glam rock era. The film is imagistically striking, laden with the excesses which characterised the time and also represent the excited mental states of the people involved in the scene. The music is less successful. The mixture of actual tracks from the time and clumsy modern attempts to capture the sound and sentiments doesn't really add to the atmosphere quite so much, however useful the particular lyrics are supposed to be to grant insight into character.

Overall the film still succeeds in transporting the viewer to another time and place, be it one that is recreated or entirely invented for the purpose of exploring questions raised by that moment in popular culture and music history. There are generically standard swipes at industrial hypocrisy, superstar burn-out, and the equation between excess and desperation, but it is not really about any particular place or person. Instead it tries to probe beneath the feathers and the glitter and find gems of insight into the human soul. It doesn't always succeed. Despite the detail with which the surface as been depicted, the characters turn out to be pretty much as superficial and obvious as they appear to be and the 'enigma' proves to have been merely hype after all. Citizen Kane it is not, then (nor Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg's Performance, for that matter).

Concerned as it is with performance, the settings do nonetheless provide a suitable backdrop for the action as the actors indulge themselves in the spirit of the thing. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is an appropriately wan and self-absorbed figure at the centre of the mystery, backed well by Collette (whose accent is all over the place) as a woman who is eventually sidelined in more ways that one. Eddie Izzard is perfect as a sleazy producer/manager who pulls the proverbial strings and Bale is reasonable enough as the troubled reporter who is a fish out of water in every sense (as we learn). Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting) receives star billing for his role in this little drama, playing a physically and emotionally wasted American rock star (faintly resembling Iggy Pop) who eventually teams up with the British idol both professionally and romantically. He spends most of the film in an befitting daze and as such makes roughly the same impact as the rest of the cast, which is to say he is part of the visual fabric of Haynes vision of the environment.

Velvet Goldmine is not uninteresting. It has definite cult possibilities because while there is much that is both striking and spectacular and it is quite cinematic, it is also disorganised (however deliberately) and uninvolving (which can't have been the point). This creates plenty of psychic space for audience reinterpretation where its flaws can be excused as misunderstood genius and its virtues can be exaggerated as proof of the argument. It is also clearly quite a personal film and it features a young cast of edgy actors who will always attract some admiration for previous and subsequent work. This means that it is at least a committed work of art rather than just another meaningless production-line by-product. This is still some currency to this in the age of Batman and Robin although it was launched with a comparable level of hype following its film festival appearances in 1997. It is still not nearly as profound or insightful as it seems to hope to be, and its Raging Bull-type finale is far from being either as surprising or meaningful as seems to have been intended.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.