Crush with Eyeliner

Velvet Goldmine gives the rock movie a makeover

In other words, the risk is theirs and the pleasure's all ours. Flashy and flamboyant where Safe was chilly and controlled, Goldmine swirls around the mystery of Brian Slade's apparent murder, the film's tantalizingly opaque style formulated through all manner of dreamy songs, surreal sets, lavish costumes, and cheeky camera moves. The pointedly fractured narrative (can anyone really know a rock star?) keeps starting over from scratch, like a record with a dozen tracks and a variety of characters taking turns on the mic. A young schoolboy named Oscar Wilde confesses, "I want to be a pop idol"--and a hundred years later, Brian Slade continues the tradition. The rock star's spurned wife (Toni Collette) and former manager (Michael Feast), along with his TV biographers and his pseudo-confessional (and Bowie-esque) songs, all fail to fully explain him, which is no doubt how he would want it. "What are ya, a mod or a rocker?" one kid asks the pre-stardom, omnisexual Slade. "Six o' one, half-dozen o' the other, and whatever else" is his answer, embodying the film's own bold refutation of either/or definitions.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde in his essay "The Critic as Artist": The artist creates the work, but the critic (or fan) creates the meaning. Thus, the key to this mystery lies in the hands of the sweaty-palmed Arthur--who, by 1984, has become a newspaper reporter assigned to discover what happened to the late citizen Slade, and to the '70s spirit of personal, sexual, and artistic experimentation, his own included. What happened, of course, was the 1980s, represented in the film through an Orwellian landscape of worker-drones transfixed by Tommy Stone (Alastair Cumming), a corporate arena-rocker whose satellite of love beams fatuous platitudes, product sponsorship, and plugs for the president to his vast, anonymous audience. (Anyone recognize the Live Aid-era Bowie here?) Clearly, it isn't (just) sex/drugs/rock 'n' roll that caused the Death of Glitter, and if Haynes seems to spend an inordinately long time lamenting the movement's downfall in his film's stunning, increasingly abstract second hour (akin to the side-long suite on a double-album rock opera?), it's because he has become the investigator looking for lipstick traces. Where did all that subversive energy go? Might we bring it back to life?

In interviews, Haynes has answered these questions pessimistically: "Glam rock," he has claimed, "was the product of the last truly progressive decade we've seen in the West"--which is to say that there's no bringing it back. Velvet Goldmine, however, explicitly proposes that to change oneself is to change the world--provided the changer doesn't pay too much attention to that world. As the film's fictionalized glam movement nears the end of its slow, sad fade, a fan and a performer celebrate their communion in a sex scene so tenderly dreamlike as to suggest an allegory of the tryst between any art lover and his fetish. Velvet Goldmine is one for the ages--and in that sense, its promise of freedom will, as Brian Ferry sang, fade away never.

The fan as artist: Christian Bale in Velvet Goldmine
The fan as artist: Christian Bale in Velvet Goldmine

Velvet Goldmine starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.

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