Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale, Toni Collette, Eddie Izzard, Emily Woof, Michael Feast, Janet McTeer, Micko Westmoreland
Written by: Todd Haynes, based on a story by Todd Haynes, James Lyons
Directed by: Todd Haynes
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and drug use
Running Time: 119
Date: 05/21/1998

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Glitter Gone

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Todd Haynes is an intellectual filmmaker, one who is also familiar with moods and emotions. His best films, Safe (1995), Far from Heaven (2002), and I'm Not There (2007) are like brilliant essays on social behavior, movies, and music, respectively. Yet they're totally satisfying on every level, not just on a brainy one.

Somehow I missed Haynes' middle film, Velvet Goldmine, which Lionsgate has recently released on Blu-Ray. Seeing it today, it doesn't seem to fit in with the others. As a movie about pop music, it's nowhere near as accomplished as I'm Not There, and it actually seems as if the latter was made as a response to, or a correction to, the former.

Indeed, Velvet Goldmine plays like one of those rags-to-riches rock 'n' roll movies that have become tired and familiar (the epiphany, fame, money, sex, drugs, addiction, burnout, recovery), and was so cleverly spoofed in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007). It more or less tells the story of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, but without actually evoking any real names or facts. Now, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a fictitious stand-in for Bowie -- with "Maxwell Demon" substituting for Bowie's Ziggy Stardust persona -- and Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) doubles for Pop.

This should have freed Haynes from the constraints of the traditional biopic formula, but instead he sinks right into it. To his credit, the biopic formula didn't really become recognizable until the 2000s, but here it is, unchanged and unchallenged.

Moreover, Haynes tells his story with the Citizen Kane format. Here a reporter, Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), tries to find out what happened to Slade after he faked his own death on stage and subsequently disappeared. Arthur interviews a former manager and an ex-wife (Toni Collette) before finding out the truth. When Welles used this format, it suggested that nobody is entirely knowable and that the truth is subject to different points of view. In Haynes' movie, it's all truth.

However, Haynes is also at the forefront of gay filmmakers, and this is one of his most open celebrations of gayness. The style is devilishly flamboyant and gleefully indulgent; every shot is full of amazing stuff. The edits dance and twist. (Even the opening evokes A Hard Day's Night, but with glam; one character stops running to pick up his dropped pink feather wrap.) It's a glam movie about a glam subject.

Apparently, Haynes was unable to secure the rights to David Bowie's actual songs, so the movie attempts several close approximations with admirable success. Better still are McGregor's interpretations of two actual Iggy Pop songs, "TV Eye" and "Gimme Danger." Real songs by T. Rex and Lou Reed are dropped in as well.

Perhaps Haynes' ultimate point comes out if we consider the seemingly unrelated prologue, in which a young Oscar Wilde announces that he'd like to become a pop idol. Wilde comes back in a different form in the movie's touching (but confusing) ending. Glam is over, for the moment. Or, if you really believe in yourself, it can live on.

Lionsgate has basically resurrected all the same extras from the DVD, including a commentary track by Haynes and producer Christine Vachon.

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