The Misunderstood: Velvet Goldmine

The Misunderstood: Velvet Goldmine

In 1998 Todd Haynes released Velvet Goldmine, a movie that has inspired more than a little derision among fans and critics of film. If any one picture can be described as "misunderstood" it is this one. Many of the terms used to describe it are inaccurate at best and it seems that the very point of Velvet Goldmine (and it does have a point) is lost on a tragically high number of viewers.

Velvet Goldmine is, in short, the story of glam rock as told from the perspective of one of its biggest fans. That fan is Todd Haynes. The movie is not meant to be historically accurate nor is it meant to be a thinly veiled biography of the central figures and fellow travelers of the glam scene. It's about the style and the music, the very feel of what it meant to be one of the people who fell in love with glitter.

As much as I appreciate this movie, I do understand that it can be a conceptual train wreck at times. Take, for instance, its central conceit. Velvet Goldmine is, as silly as this sounds, a remake of Citizen Kane transposed on top of a brief musical fascination of David Bowie, Roxy Music, The New York Dolls and other artists. It doesn't take a film buff to identify the shots and sometimes even the whole scenes duplicated from Kane into VG. The strange part is that Haynes makes no effort to hide any of this. It's not like he's trying to pass the work of Orson Welles off as his own, at least no more than he's trying to pass the music of Brian Eno and Lou Reed off as originals by his fictional rockstar protagonists.

The character in the Kane role is Brian Slade, an androgynous rocker who is more than a little bit of a stand-in for David Bowie. Jonathan Rhys Meyers really inhabits the character. It was a pretty bold move for an actor who was essentially unknown at the time. Standing at the front of a weird movie like Velvet Goldmine could have killed his career in its infancy. Without Bend It Like Beckham and the grace of Woody Allen, that very well may have been the outcome.

David Bowie famously distanced himself from this movie. He didn't allow any of his songs to be used and he never really commented much on the finished product. In the end, I think the film benefits from Bowie's shrewdness. Sure, Brian Slade is basically a shadow of Bowie, but he's not really a biographical figure. Slade is the personification of the image Bowie cultivated in 1970's, but not Bowie himself. By removing the glammed-out elephant in the room, Velvet Goldmine avoids being the unofficial David Bowie story.

As borderline-absurd as Velvet Goldmine is, it's a visually intriguing and musically engaging movie. It sports an excellent cast including Ewen McGregor, Toni Collette, Christian Bale and Eddie Izzard. Sandy Powell got an Oscar nod and a BAFTA award for her costume design and the film itself got a few other bits of recognition in the film circuit, including the Artistic Contribution Award at Cannes.

Velvet Goldmine is an odd duck of a film, that's for certain, but it's still a worthwhile work of art. It's a fan's movie, from fans of glam to fans of film and fans of Oscar Wilde (whose writings are sprinkled throughout the script). At times it's a real mess and it comes close to losing its direction on more than one occasion, but Velvet Goldmine makes up for it with a smattering of transcendent moments. Sometimes we need movies to exist in their own self-contained, magical space.