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'Velvet Goldmine': A Fuzzy Head Trip

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 1998

  Movie Critic

Velvet Goldmine
Rebel, Rebel: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Ewan McGregor a la Bowie and Pop in "Goldmine." (Miramax)

Todd Haynes
Ewan McGregor;
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers;
Toni Collette;
Christian Bale;
Eddie Izzard
Running Time:
2 hours, 7 minutes
Contains profanity, nudity, drug use and polymorphous sexuality
You've got to give a guy credit for trying. And boy, is filmmaker Todd Haynes ever trying.

In his gloriously ambitious and fatally flawed "Velvet Goldmine," Haynes is trying your patience, among other things. He's also trying, according the production notes for his saga of the glam rock days of the early 1970s, to write and direct a love story, a musical and a thriller, in addition to a "period extravaganza and cultural document of an era." Unfortunately, in each of the above ways, the film ranges from partially to profoundly unsatisfying.

Sublime and ridiculous, "Velvet Goldmine" is "Citizen Kane" meets "Eddie and the Cruisers" – a story told primarily in flashback from the vantage point of 1984 as journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) investigates the 10-year-old disappearance of pop star Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who staged his own murder during a concert as a publicity stunt and then disappeared from view when his hoax was revealed.

That's the so-called thriller element, but Alfred Hitchcock has no competition from Haynes, who delivers a payoff so lame and bewildering that the plot device seems a mere contrivance. The real meat of the story is the relationship between Slade, whose career in many ways resembles that of David Bowie, and Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), who is superficially similar to Iggy Pop. That's one love story angle to "Velvet Goldmine," except the friendship between these two self-absorbed, bisexual party boys seems to consist more of lust than love, unless narcissism counts as affection. The other romance has to do with reporter Stuart himself, who as a teenager fell in love with rock 'n' roll during the heyday of the glamour craze.

As a cultural documentarian, Haynes is somewhat more successful, creating a rich tapestry evoking the trippy sights, theatrical sounds and flamboyant make-up and haberdashery of the pop scene-as long as you don't try to think of his story as a roman a clef, with exact correspondences between the fictional characters and their real-life inspirations.

In its panoply of slyly suggestive character names and musical allusions, there are so many references to real historical figures and cultural artifacts that one-to-one equivalency is impossible and ultimately pointless. Brian Eno, Brian Ferry, T. Rex, the Who, the Stones and the New York Dolls are but a few of the musical connections that "Velvet Goldmine" calls to mind; in apparent homage to Greil Marcus's hip history of the 20th century, a Brian Slade album is titled "Lipstick Traces," and, in a nod to the Velvet Underground song, Slade's band is named Venus in Furs.

In the end, though, the in-jokey name-dropping annoys and confuses more than it illuminates, and the resemblances between the blond, greasy-haired McGregor and the late Kurt Cobain and the lippy and long-lashed Rhys-Meyers to the young Michael Stipe (who executive-produced the film) only further confound matters.

As ever, Haynes is a bold stylist, mixing fake news footage, hand-held camera shots, grainy flashbacks, music video production numbers, magic realism, on-screen titles, Barbie-doll puppetry and dreamlike set pieces to create a film that looks like no other. (It also suggests that Irish writer Oscar Wilde was not only left on Earth by space aliens, but that the author of "The Importance of Being Earnest" is the direct antecedent of the modern pop idol, but no matter.)

When all is said and done, the extensive music in "Velvet Gold mine"-consisting of period originals, covers by contemporary artists and a handful of originals-is the best thing about the film. Like the glam and glitter fad itself, it is the songs that have stood the test of time, not the hideous clothes and blue shag haircuts.

In trying to compose a poetic love letter to a time of liberation and freedom, Haynes has merely conjured up memories of druggy excess, egotism and tight trousers. The only mementos worth saving from the experience are available on the soundtrack.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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