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Gone Glam Digging

By Richard Harrington
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
Nudity, profanity, drug use and terribly confusing sexuality
The sad lesson of Todd Haynes's "Velvet Goldmine" is that looking at the glamorous life, even 25 years later, isn't half as interesting as participating in it must have been.

That was also the message in the early '70s, when glam rock, personified by David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Roxy Music, Gary Glitter and a few other, mostly British, acts, briefly took center stage with a supernova flash before flaming out.

The film tracks the intertwining lives and loves of characters transparently based on David Bowie, his wife, Angela Bowie, and rock provocateur Iggy Pop (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Toni Collette and Ewan McGregor, respectively). Centered on the rise and fall of glam icon Brian Slade, the film is a visually beautiful but clumsily plotted mishmash of "Citizen Kane," "Eddie and the Cruisers" and England's last overblown movie musical, "Absolute Beginners."

Haynes calls "Velvet Goldmine" a "valentine" to glam rock and the "extraordinary inversion" it projected onto "our notions of performance, sexuality and identity." Glam validated androgyny and sexual ambiguity, gauche fashion, over-the-top theatricality and an all-excess approach to personal behavior. It didn't just bend genders, it broke them.

Unfortunately, Haynes gets so caught up in mere recapitulation that he never really gets around to making a convincing case for the music, the scene or the culture that briefly held sway (more in England than in America).

The film opens amusingly, with a century-long flashback to grade-schooler Oscar Wilde declaring his life's intention: "I want to be a pop idol." Wilde never said any such thing, of course, but a young David Bowie did. It's the first of many Bowie appropriations to shape the film, right through Slade's transformation into his space-age alter ego, Maxwell Demon. Bowie withheld rights to his songs and is reportedly working on a "Ziggy Stardust" movie of his own, but he's all over "Velvet Goldmine," so much so that he deserves top billing.

Instead, we get the little known Rhys-Meyers as Slade, the British boy genius of glam who starts as a longhair, sensitive singer-songwriter with a slightly theatrical bent. His life changes when he catches a raucous performance by Curt Wild (McGregor), an American exhibitionist whose glitter-flecked display of raw, writhing rock-and-roll power suggests a whole new world.

Wild is actually an amalgam of Iggy Pop, a little Lou Reed and a dash of Bowie's longtime guitarist Mick Ronson. McGregor is relatively convincing emulating Iggy (though he ends up looking more like Kurt Cobain). He actually sings the Pop songs that appear in the film.

Ghosts are central to "Velvet Goldmine," which also borrows liberally from Orson Welles's 1941 classic "Citizen Kane," kicking off with a documentary recap of the rise and fall of Brian Slade, to a grim finale in which a publicity stunt involving a "Death of Glitter" funeral concert goes terribly awry – and ultimately provokes an investigation into the man's character.

A decade later, glitter boy turned ace reporter Arthur Stuart (a glazed-over Christian Bale) is dispatched to uncover the mystery of Slade's mysterious disappearances, and does so by tracking down and interviewing his professional associates and former lovers. The most "Kane"-ish moment comes when Stuart finds Slade's former paramour Mandy (Collette) sitting and drinking alone in an empty nightclub where she's billed as The Divine Miss Mandy Slade. Like Susan Alexander, who played the corresponding part in "Citizen Kane," she's reluctant to address the past but provides edgy insights into the defining relationship in "Velvet Goldmine," that between Brian Slade and Curt Wild.

Like the real David Bowie, Slade participates wholeheartedly in the '70s sexual revolution, publicly toying with the media over gay activities. "My revolution is a sexual revolution," Slade tells inquiring reporters. Haynes, an openly gay director, has described glam rock as a watershed movement for young gays on both sides of the Atlantic, as the cross-dressing, ambiguous, sometimes ambivalent heroes inspired them to come out of the closet.

While McGregor and Collette shine in their masquerades, pretty boy Rhys-Meyers is simply too thick, and lacking in genuine charisma, to carry the central impersonation, musically or dramatically. It doesn't help that Slade's songs (some written by former Washington band Shudder to Think) are necessarily Bowie pastiches, or that some of the performance sequences seem lifted intact from D.A. Pennebaker's 1982 rockumentary, "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars." The soundtrack is an uneven mix of classic period recordings, covers by the likes of Thom Yorke of Radiohead and several new but intentionally idiomatic songs.

Appropriately, "Velvet Goldmine" is most successful in its depiction of the outrageously colorful fashions that defined glam, for which costume designer Sandy Powell and makeup/hair designer Peter King deserve major credit. Like much of glam's legacy, "Velvet Goldmine" looks far better than it plays.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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