Film: As If to the Glamour Born the Big Picture; VELVET GOLDMINE (18) DIRECTOR: TODD HAYNES STARRING: JONATHAN RHYS MEYERS, EWAN MCGREGOR, CHRISTIAN BALE 120 MINS
Gilbey, Ryan, The Independent (London, England)
The phenomenon of glam rock burned briefly but brightly in the early Seventies before expiring shortly after, face down in its powder puff, asphyxiated by the fumes from its own glitter nail- varnish. Todd Haynes' glorious new film, Velvet Goldmine, is both a celebration and an analysis of the era, though it spreads its net too wide to be pigeonholed as a simple rock'n'roll biopic. Even the timescale of the picture, which runs from the birth of Oscar Wilde to the cultural wasteland of the mid- Eighties, doesn't give any indication of the breadth of its vision, or the extent of its imagination. The past and the future are re-invented and re-imagined: when we reach 1984, the year is located in a parallel universe where bland rock stars endorse sinister presidents. And when Oscar Wilde is delivered to his parents' doorstep in 1854, he arrives not by stork but by flying-saucer. Later, that same alien spacecraft will deposit its cargo of glitter onto two young men having sex on a rooftop in Seventies London. No, Toto: we're definitely not in Kansas anymore.
As befits a film about the friction between appearances and what they conceal and reveal, Velvet Goldmine has a deceptively simple surface which borrows the classical narrative convention of the quest for truth. Arthur (Christian Bale) is a young English journalist in Eighties New York who is commissioned to write a feature on Brian Slade, a glam-rock superstar who vanished after faking his own assassination. Arthur's investigation uncovers a gallery of eccentric characters revealed in flashback: Brian himself (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a Bowie-esque idol in futuristic jump- suits and feather boas; his mentor, Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), a self- destructive American rocker in the Lou Reed/Iggy Pop mould; and the androgynous Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland), who swans around London being glamorous and decadent but serving little actual purpose, which was one of the points of glam, after all.
The film flirts with rock history so blatantly that it often seems to come within centimetres of a lawsuit. But one of Haynes' main arguments is that there was actually no sense of any governing reality within glam. The interplay between truth and fiction, art and life, was so pronounced that it eradicated all traces of a fixed, consistent present. The very fabric of Velvet Goldmine replicates this idea: form and content function in such inseparable, mutually enriching harmony that the movie is as much an imitation of glam's essence as a dissection of it. This is significant on every level of the film. Visually, it incorporates a collision of garish visual styles and techniques, with the cinematographer Maryse Alberti being particularly fond of those ugly zooms so prevalent in early Seventies film-making. The sterile, science-fiction look of Haynes' last film, Safe, reflected its subject matter, and in the same way Haynes draws on the ragbag, magpie fashions of glam to define the style and even the structure of Velvet Goldmine. There are visual allusions to specific shots in Performance and Jubilee, and explicit references to Haynes' own short films, Dottie Gets Spanked and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Early on, he even presents a brief tour of the components which combined to create glam, including music-hall cross-dressing and the effete rock'n'roll of Little Richard. If you sense chaos and incoherence, that's because you're meant to. …