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Drama Queens

The epigram "Histories, like ancient ruins, are the fictions of empire" may seem more appropriate to Shekhar Kapur's 16th-century period drama Elizabeththan Todd Haynes's 1970s-set Velvet Goldmine(wherein it appears), but Haynes's ambitious glam-rock opera is an unusually literate and ironically grandiose contribution to the current cycle of lost-scene movies.

Set on a cusp— between the twilight of the orgiastic '60s and the dawn of the deflated '70s— the 1971­73 Glam Era celebrated self-conscious artifice with melancholy pomp. Haynes, who has his movie define its subject as a post­Flower Power mix of "glamour, nostalgia, and just plain outrageousness," has done his homework. A monument to gilded evanescence, Velvet Goldminestruggles mightily to re-mythologize a moment in pop history that was born mythologized.

The movie opens, like the Disney Peter Pan or Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters, from a cosmic perspective with an extraterrestrial visitation upon the sleeping humanity. The alien turns out to be the infant Oscar Wilde, who, in effect, invents the body electric by growing up to tell his schoolmaster that his ambition is "to be a pop idol." Thus theorizing rock as a romantic expression predicated on the creation of a charismatic persona, Haynes anoints Wilde— the ultimate aesthete and consummate public role-player— as founding father (as someone else might argue for Lord Byron or Walt Whitman).

Loony tune: McGregor as Curt Wild in Velvet Goldmine
Peter Mountain
Loony tune: McGregor as Curt Wild in Velvet Goldmine

Details

Velvet Goldmine
Written and directed by Todd Haynes
A Miramax release
Opens November 6

Elizabeth
Directed by Shekhar Kapur
Written by Michael Hirst
A Gramercy release
Opens November 6

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As can be deduced from this hectic prologue, which then jumps ahead a century to present blue-haired glam star Brian Slade's onstage "assassination," Velvet Goldminehas no shortage of ideas— most of which are presented from the viewpoint of an ardent fan. To a large degree and with considerable wit, Velvet Goldmineis a film à clef. As glitter-encrusted Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) strongly resembles David Bowie (with a few echoes of Marc Bolan) and his consort Mandy (Toni Collette) suggests Angie Bowie, so his American idol, the bare-chested garage-rock madman Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), is Iggy Pop (inflected by Lou Reed's bio and Kurt Cobain's look). Velvet Goldmine's most daring intervention is to take glam's extravagantly queer theatricality at its word. Extrapolating a sexual relationship from Bowie and Iggy's 1977 artistic collaboration, Haynes centers his film on Slade and Wild's mad fling. It's a "Tracy and Hepburn for the '70s" in someone's naughty formulation and Haynes flaunts his subversive fantasy further in quoting his own Super-8 classic Superstarby initially dramatizing the Slade-Wild affair with a pair of Ken dolls even before the actors get down to being bad boys together. Rhys-Meyers may not be as seductive as the script insists, but his focused petulance projects something of Bowie's lunar coldness; as his wife, Collette has a complementary sullenness, but McGregor pogos off with the movie as the lunatic Wild— and he can sing too.

Haynes's freedom to mess with pop personae is crucial insofar as Velvet Goldmine is most strikingly organized in terms of stars and fans. Glam rock is not only presented as a pop religion, complete with a fake crucifixion and holy relics, but as a source of cult identity. In one of the most evocative scenes, the humble devotee Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) risks public humiliation to purchase an early Brian Slade LP. With a concentrated attention otherwise reserved for the spectacle of McGregor chewing on Rhys-Meyers's bee-stung lips, Haynes lavishes mega­close-ups on the record jacket, the paper sleeve, and the label, until the whole clunky process of plopping a vinyl disc on a plastic hi-fi is steeped in erotic anticipation. As Kenneth Anger wrote of the early movie stars, never have so few become masturbation fodder for so many. Later and more pathetically, a langorous glam orgy is interpenetrated with scenes of poor glamateur Arthur caught wanking in his parents' house. (Bale seems to exist in a state of perpetual embarrassment.)

Compounding the artifice, Haynes has Arthur double as a reporter in the investigative flashback structure that Velvet Goldminelifts, none too successfully, from Citizen Kane. After a most promising beginning, Velvet Goldmine's progress grows increasingly labored, stumbling around the structural roadblocks Haynes has erected in its path. The emphasis on theatrical, elegiac anthems slows the action, rather than jolting it alive. (This may well be Haynes's intention. The movie's most galvanizing number— Bolan's "20th Century Boy"— is strategically withheld until the so-called Death of Glitter concert.) As free-associative as the movie sometimes seems, it is anything but rhapsodic. Velvet Goldmine is strong enough to bring together, as glam precursors, a number of hitherto unrelated, early-'70s Anglo-American movies— Performance, A Clockwork Orange, The Boy Friend, Born To Boogie, Cabaret, and Jesus Christ Superstar (as well as The Rocky Horror Picture Showand Derek Jarman's Jubilee, themselves comments on glam). What it lacks is their showbiz vulgarity. More kabuki pageant than melodrama, less edited than assembled, the movie emphasizes structure over fantasy, concept over performance, and— despite an opening request to be "played at maximum volume"— glam over rock. There's a Brechtian presentation— perhaps even a documentary essay— yearning to emerge from this ostensibly commercial enterprise.

Undeniably intelligent, Velvet Goldmine is arguably the most cerebral rock'n'roll movie ever made. The movie begs for footnotes, exegesis, disputation— it's an Apollonian orgy. That's not necessarily an oxymoron, but on the big screen in the real world, it's a Pyrrhic victory at best.

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