By Romney, Jonathan
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 127, No. 4408
"Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction," teasingly announce the opening titles to Velvet Goldmine, "it should be played at full volume." Todd Haynes's extraordinary panorama of the glamrock years seems certain to face resistance from British audiences, who usually like to know for sure whether they're dealing with fact or fiction. Besides, its hyper-camp polysexual pitch flies violently in the face of 1990s rock-geezer culture. It won't pull the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels audience, that's for sure.
This is not the real glam story, though. Instead of a David Bowie biopic, it's a fantasy about a Bowie-esque young thing called Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who enjoys a torrid romance with American star Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), closely modelled on Iggy Pop. Bowie-ires may well hate the film, not only for its cartoon image of the True Facts, but also because Haynes presents his hero as a confused opportunist, a cultural magpie cribbing indiscriminately from a multitude of role models, before cashing in his chips for the conformist rock dreams of the 1980s.
Velvet Goldmine should be read as a fantasy, and like the best fantasies, it's fabulously superficial at first sight, before revealing hidden depths and resonances. It uses the Bowie story much as Slade uses the images of history. This is a fan's dream of pop history, by a director who was too young to be in the thick of it at the time. Although Velvet Goldmine has been touted as a British film, because of its stars and Film on Four's production involvement, it's very much an American director's fantasy about Englishness - a rifling, at transatlantic arm's length, of motifs from pop's past and the gay history that informed it. The references run from Oscar Wilde, through music hall drag, through the parlare slang of 1960s gay subculture, to the short-lived revolution of glam's mascara-masquerade.
Velvet Goldmine is in every sense a made-up story about made-up people. Like Bowie, Slade invents himself piecemeal, but that hardly invalidates him or makes him less "authentic" - a word which has never been much use in pop history. Ever since emerging in the early 1990s as a front runner in what was briefly hailed as the "New Queer Cinema", Todd Haynes has shown a cultural analyst's eye for the paradoxes of identity and the prerogatives of fantasy. His debut feature, Poison, was inspired by Jean Genet, the high priest of transgressive self-invention and another Bowie hero. …