on July 28, 2005
An oddball film that chronicles the rise and fall of an early 1970s glam rock star, Velvet Goldmine almost defies categorization. While separating fiction from fact can be tricky, the story is based pretty much on the life of David Bowie; some details have been tweaked for dramatic effect, but there's surprisingly little deviation from just about any biography that's ever been written about him. The non-linear narrative takes the viewer into the glittery world of one Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and the entourage surrounding him. Slade had created an alter-ego for himself called Maxwell Demon (as Bowie created Ziggy Stardust), and the character had almost come to eclipse Slade himself. After an on-stage stunt literally backfires, Slade's fans revolted against him, and the singer vanished into drugs and obscurity.
His story is conveyed in flashbacks when, in 1984, journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is assigned to write a tenth anniversary retrospective on Slade and perhaps uncover the singer's ultimate fate. Arthur interviews Slade's first manager, Cecil (Michael Feast) and then his bitter ex-wife, Mandy (Toni Collette), and from them pieces together Slade's early background as a musician, including the players who proved crucial to his career: maverick second manager Jerry Devine (Eddie Izzard), unstable proto-punk rocker Kurt Wild (Ewan McGregor), and deceptively shy wardrobe mistress Shannon (Emily Woof). Arthur of course is no mere bystander to all these events; the unfolding story reveals that he was a huge fan of Slade, turning to music as an escape during his troubled adolescence. In digging up Slade's past, he also unleashes a lot of his own demons, and the story is just as much Arthur's as Brian's.
Although the film stands as a loving homage to glitter, it also doesn't hesitate to reveal that the core of the phenomenon was essentially empty. Somehow, Velvet Goldmine manages to both celebrate and condemn glam rock: Slade starts his career as a naive singer-songwriter with some interesting and unusual ideas, but once Devine's corporate machine takes over, Slade's creativity is stifled to the point where he's a prisoner of his own artifice. Ultimately, the pre-fabricated exterior is all that's left of him.
Teasing out the narrative thread is no easy feat. Velvet Goldmine is liberally draped in yards of trappings: musical interludes, documentary sequences, images that often go unexplained and don't add much; there's characters, scenes, and plot threads that serve no purpose other than window dressing. Some of this proves effective (a take on early music video is a real hoot), but much of the excess could've been trimmed away in the interests of tightening the story. While Arthur's investigation into the Slade mystery is handled well, other plot elements needed more attention.
Bowiephiles will recognize every phase of their idol's early career: the dapper mod, the curly-haired hippie, the cross-dressed singer-songwriter, the flamboyant glam rocker (there's even a very fun poke at Serious Moonlight-era Bowie that cleverly ties into the main plot). The characters mirror exactly those in Bowie's orbit, but viewers who don't know the characters and don't get the jokes/ references are apt to find themselves baffled, not to mention put off by the film's excesses.
Anyone willing to sift through the spangles and feathers, however, will be rewarded with some terrific acting. Ewan McGregor is mostly wasted as the unstable Kurt Wild--he has a couple of knockout performance sequences, but Wild otherwise spends most of his scenes drugged out and exploding in angry diatribes; although McGregor gets top billing, Wild is really a supporting player. Izzard is a lot of fun as the oily Devine; Woof handles Shannon's transformation from innocent schoolgirl to shrewd operator with aplomb; Feast is terrifically droll in his work as the ignominiously discarded Cecil. Bale is utterly fearless as Arthur: he has to put across a lot of weakness and shyness and self-doubt, as well as Arthur's sexual awakening. Many actors wouldn't have touched this character with the proverbial ten-foot pole, but Bale handles the material--including one humiliating moment in Arthur's life--without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. Toni Colette is a marvel, taking her character from naive party girl to cynical rock wife to jaded, washed-up ex--she's funny and subtle and outrageous, suggesting a deep and genuine love for Brian, pain and betrayal when he essentially dumps her for Kurt, and finally weary bitterness that the world at large has forgotten her. Of all the characters, Mandy seems to have truly loved the wild circus of glam rock, and she longs for the past with a touching sense of nostalgia.
As terrific as all these performances are, the film belongs to Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, whose turn as Bowie is nothing short of riveting. A kind of raw sexual energy seems to pour out of him; he's magnetic, and much like Bowie himself, it's impossible to take your eyes off him. The physical resemblance is particularly uncanny, and Rhys-Meyers gets all the little details down perfectly: the expressions, the posture, the body language. Like Bale, he tackles the role head-on, and it's a testament to his skill that he conveys such depth of emotion through layers of costume, wig, and makeup. Even his reedy voice evokes the young Bowie, and yes, that's him singing in four different numbers (two of them were left off the movie's soundtrack CD). This role, more than any of his others, brings home the depth and extent of JRM's talent. Everyone in the film is stellar, but only Rhys-Meyers seems touched with genuine prodigy. Anyone who admires him as an actor shouldn't miss him here.
Velvet Goldmine's other great strength is its music, which consists of classic tunes from the era, as well as songs specifically written for the film. The overall effect is of a long-lost Bowie album, and it's a pity that two or three show-stoppers were left off the soundtrack. Music is of course inextricably linked to story in this type of film, used to illuminate character and propel the narrative. A couple of set pieces don't work, but mostly the music is wonderful, melding perfectly to the visual images and adding depth to each scene.
Velvet Goldmine plainly isn't a movie for everyone, and almost certainly some would find it unwatchable; mileage will vary greatly depending on one's tolerance for gay characters, men in drag, and a heightened sense of camp. There's also a *lot* of sex (gay, straight, group, and solo) and full frontal nudity (male and female)--the film is rated R for a very good reason. Velvet Goldmine can probably be summed up as a diamond in the rough--the viewer may need to do some chipping, but the glittering facets that are revealed make the effort worthwhile.