By Seligman, Craig
Artforum International , Vol. 37, No. 2
All That Glitters
Next month Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes' cinematic secret history of glam rock, opens in theaters across the country. The most substantial production to date from the director of films including the cult classic and more recently Safe, new feature reimagines the moment in recent pop history as a libertine fantasy turned '70s morality play dense with allusions, both musical and literary. Craig Seligman measures the returns against the ambition.
Velvet Goldmine takes the history of glam rock - that brief, early-'70s burst of glitter that gave the world David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and a flock of other mascaraed musicians who seemed to want to be drag queens - and does a makeover on it. It's a delectable idea, even if the thirty-seven-year-old writer and director Todd Haynes, a semiotician by training and a cool drink of water by temperament, isn't the most likely filmmaker to have come up with it. Actually pop subjects coax Haynes toward the kind of showmanship he needs to connect with an audience. At least that's the impression I took away from Dottie Gets Spanked, his weird and funny 1993 short about a little boy's psychosexual reactions to a TV sitcom, and especially from his 1986 Karen Carpenter biography, Superstar, the movie that was famously made with Barbie and Ken dolls. Something about the pathos of pop kitsch tickles Haynes and loosens him up, and he winds up responding to it more completely than he does to loftier subjects. On bad days he leans simultaneously toward obscurantism and didacticism. Both impulses are at work in Poison, his 1991 meditation on (among other things) Jean Genet and AIDS prejudice. His 1995 feature, Safe, a study of a troubled, vacuous woman who retreats to a New Age commune, is far more controlled, yet so pulled back that by the end it's hard to tell just what Haynes is trying to accomplish.
Velvet Goldmine certainly isn't pulled back. From the distance of twenty-five years, glare has come to look worn and a little bit silly, but Haynes does a wonderful job of making it fresh. He grasps the preposterous sexiness of the pose - he makes glam glamorous. And he captures the intensity of the effect it had on its fans, especially gay kids. The framing device is a Citizen Kane structure in which a thirtyish reporter (Christian Bale) sets out to discover what happened to a vanished pop star; flashbacks intertwine the story of the star with the story of the reporter when he was an obsessed fan just awakening to his sexuality. For its first hour, the movie is an uninterrupted rush. It's got a fine sound track: Haynes and his music supervisor, Randall Poster, have combined '70s records (by Brian Ferry, Brian Eno, and others), covers, and music newly written for the movie. Michael Stipe was one of its executive producers, and the musicians are just about flawless. So are the sets, the costumes, the makeup: they're all hilariously, excruciatingly right. Still, if you remember the era, you emerge with static in your recollections. How can you safeguard your memories when a character who is based on Iggy Pop and who resembles Iggy but who clearly isn't Iggy does an Iggy song? It's not a desecration, like, say, Diana Ross imitating Billie Holiday--he does it sensationally. But it's disorienting. And Haynes puts this cognitive dissonance to use. He has an agenda, and chipping away at authenticity makes it easier for him to get away with reinventing musical history.
The glam rockers took the improbable fagginess of Mick Jagger's stage act and codified it into something like an ethos. Or rather, they pretended to: a lot of their gay fans felt deeply betrayed when the stars turned out just to be straight guys with a gimmick. It's to this audience - and its young successors - that Haynes wants to offer a history they've never been able to lay claim to: he makes a political statement and at the same time indulges his fantasies by pretending that these performers really were gay. …