The epigram “Histories, like ancient ruins, are the fictions of empire” may seem more appropriate to Shekhar Kapur’s 16th-century period drama Elizabeth than 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 Goldmine struggles 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).
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 Goldmine has 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 Goldmine is 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 Superstar by 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 Goldmine lifts, 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 Show and 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
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.
Another outsider’s view of British history, Shekhar Kapur’s dark, gusty account of the young Elizabeth Tudor’s ascension to the throne is steeped in precisely the sort of enjoyable hokum that Velvet Goldmine eschews.
An exercise in court intrigue and controlled tumult, the Elizabeth show begins with three Protestants burnt at the stake, but that’s about as much public spectacle as the film supplies. In order to survive, the 25-year-old queen (superbly embodied by Cate Blanchett) must elude a host of foreign conspiracies, Vatican fatwas, and trick marriage proposals. Such protection as she has is the province of the cold-blooded spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham (an impressively sinister Geoffrey Rush, who never quite gets the big scene his lurking warrants). This relatively economical period melodrama is mainly a succession of candle-lit interiors— although England has never seemed more English than in the exterior scenes of rude merrymaking. A parallel is established in the contrast between the intrigue-ridden court and Elizabeth’s unassumingly fresh and frolicsome nature. The dance the young queen does with her boyfriend— lover seems too heavy a term— is at once courtly and pagan.
Any evocation of 16th-century England can bask in reflected Shakespearean glory, but Kapur pushes this even further. More disciplined than his 1994 cause célèbre, Bandit Queen, Elizabeth displays a Wellesian brio in its dramatic overheads, deep-focus compositions, and baroque bustling through cold castles, all serving to emphasize the heroine’s search for a center in this unbalanced world. Verily, Elizabeth‘s most triumphant aspect is Blanchett’s transformation from saucy, spirited toe-tapper to iconic Virgin Queen— preempting the cult of Mary with her own personification of the English Renaissance. As common-sensical as her Elizabeth proves to be, Blanchett anticipates the foppish pop savants of Velvet Goldmine, who advise, “The secret of becoming a star is knowing how to behave like one.”