There’s never been a movie musical quite like Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine. Dense and deliriously volatile, the film’s narrative is a compound of loosely disguised fact, imaginative extrapolation, and wistful wish-fulfillment. The music–arguably the most crucial piece of the elaborate overall puzzle–is comparably bold and giddy, a grab bag of choice artifacts and inspired counterfeits.
Velvet Goldmine is named for an obscure 1971 Bowie song (a raunchily tongue-in-cheek number, abandoned by the singer but later released as a B-side), but Bowie–the obvious inspiration for Brian Slade, the Jonathan Rhys-Meyers character–famously refused Haynes permission to use his songs in the film. The official line is that he’s saving them for an upcoming Ziggy Stardust project. Haynes says this initial stumbling block ultimately worked to his advantage. “Most people bring some sort of baggage to the film, which makes it difficult for them to read it as a fiction. Having Brian sing Bowie tunes would have made that all the harder.” Goldmine‘s music supervisor, Randall Poster, agrees. “The Bowie curveball made the film more original,” he says. “We just added one more fantasy element to the fantasia.”
Alongside Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Lou Reed, and T. Rex originals, the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack features a number of respectful yet surprisingly vibrant covers (mostly early Roxy performed by an ad hoc supergroup called the Venus in Furs, featuring name British talent like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler). “When you’re doing covers for a period movie,” says Poster, “you can’t really deconstruct the songs. You want the thing to have character but not fall out of period.” The soundtrack’s most striking component is the newly commissioned material: gleaming fop-pop baubles by Pulp, Grant Lee Buffalo, and Shudder To Think. Shudder’s Craig Wedren, whose outsize vibrato is a perfect fit for glitter, insists the songwriting process was relatively easy. “Take the flavor of ‘All the Young Dudes,’ get that Mick Ronson sound, whine a little, throw in some poncey-boy and space-alien imagery, and you’re there.”
Velvet Goldmine may not be a musical in the classic tradition, but, as Haynes points out, “Music functions in the film in almost every possible way that it has in film historically–it’s in the background, performed on stage, it’s a dramatic progression of the narrative, or it works as a sort of subtextual narration.” The movie’s baroque structure is inextricably linked to the music–all the songs had to be recorded before principal photography. “The film is so ornately constructed around song, sometimes down to a verse-by-verse level of specificity,” says Haynes. “When I was trying to plan out scenes, I had to always measure them against the pace of the music. And while cutting, we ended up sneaking time out of every song, shortening verses, halving intros.” Poster likens Haynes’s screenplay to “an architect’s blueprint. It was like Todd had designed a house–down to the details of the knobs on the cabinets. ”
As preparation for the concert footage, Haynes and director of photography Maryse Alberti looked at films like The Last Waltz and
D. A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust. “I’m not a spontaneous filmmaker,” says Haynes. “I wouldn’t know how to be. And yet, the climate of variables on a set, no matter what the planning, is unique, and I’d never been forced to acknowledge that, pleasurably, and to the degree that I did with those concert scenes.”
Velvet Goldmine‘s shiny, rock-opera two-dimensionality actually locates it within the framework of Haynes’s longstanding formal concerns. “I’m never interested in characters as ‘real people,’ ” he says. “With Velvet Goldmine, the characters are not only composites of real people, but tropes, condensations of all these references. They’re like characters in a musical–you don’t expect the same kinds of depth from them. In a musical, the story is often larger-than-life, a series of hyperbolized gestures, and your emotional connection to it is supplemented by music and spectacle.”
Still, Velvet Goldmine is steeped in a singularly English brand of queerness, and it’s not surprising to hear that Haynes “didn’t conceptualize the film around the American musical as much as around the paradox of my favorite glam-rock music–mainly the first two Roxy Music records, in which there’s this preoccupation with the presentation, the pose, the style, all these elements that should create a distanced relationship but somehow don’t. The emotionality of the music coexists with the intellectual element in this bizarre way, which is very much against the grain of rock and roll.”
Haynes has acknowledged that Velvet Goldmine was his most difficult shoot, but he still talks about the whole experience with obvious fondness. The earliest stages involved combing through secondhand record stores in London and poring over the British charts from the period. “My ridiculous obsession resulted in this 10 100-minute-tape opus of the entire history of glitter, from 1965 to 1975, going week by week. It was a great way of getting to know the music as people would have on the radio at the time.”
So after all that research, shooting and shaping the film, and yet more months talking about it to an endless parade of journalists, is Haynes sick of glam? “No,” he replies instantly. “Which must prove I’m a true obsessive. I remember after Superstar, I couldn’t stop listening to Karen Carpenter.” Not exactly catharsis after the fact, he says, more “an amorous righteousness, or a righteous amorousness, or something like that.”
For all the Ziggy/Iggy talk surrounding the film, it’s Roxy that Haynes keeps returning to. “What I hope is that you can approach the film like Roxy Music. If you looked at Roxy Music, you could say, oh my God, how pretentious, but it’s not pretentious, ultimately. It’s knowing but it’s also full of yearning. You can’t take its poetry too literally.”
One of three articles in our Velvet Goldmine feature.