Lionsgate // 1998 // 119 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // December 13th, 2011
Curt Wild: "We set out to change the world...ended up just changing
Arthur Stuart: "What's wrong with that?"
Curt Wild: "Nothing, if you don't look at the world."
When I first saw Velvet Goldmine back in 1998 I was working for an alternative rock radio station, and I believed music had the power to change the entire wold. Rock and roll meant everything, and I fell in love with this quirky musical by independent impressario Todd Haynes (Poison) that carried the sentiment stylishly along. It's an homage to a time when David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop blurred the lines between masculine or feminine, taking rock images out of the hippie era and into a theatrical world of glitter, sci-fi, and platform shoes. Now it'll be remembered as the movie where Obi Wan Kenobi buggered Batman on rooftop.
Velvet Goldmine centers on a reporter (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight) seeking out what happened to a glam rock star (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, The Tudors) ten years after the singer infamously faked his own death on stage. Through flashbacks and interviews, the story of Brian Slade is revealed, a thinly veiled riff on the legends surrounding David Bowie. We get to hear from his first manager, his ex-wife (Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense), and the star (Ewan McGregor, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) he fell in love with. But the real story here is the sexual awakening of the reporter as he comes to terms with his past and present through the antics of his idols.
Velvet Goldmine is a rock and roll collage cobbled together from various sources to form a glittering tapestry that merely scratches the surface of the material it draws from. The mystery and narrative really don't hold together as well as the atmosphere and production do. This is all style over substance, much like Glam Rock itself; recognized with Academy Award nominations for costume design and little else. If you go in expecting a linear story that holds up well, you may well be disappointed. But if you climb onboard expecting a long play music video, the film works like gangbusters.
Haynes constructed his script from a whole bunch sources: Oscar Wilde quotes, David Bowie's career, Angela Bowie's slanderous biography, a combination of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop mythology, and more. He frames this research in a very obvious nod to films like Citizen Kane and A Hard Day's Night, but there's no reason to think of it as a biography of any one person.
Haynes wanted to use a lot of Bowie's music, but David refused. The rock icon was upset they were using some of Angela Bowie's biography and painting the character as completely gay. They ended up getting musical help from music legends Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno, so much of the soundtrack is constructed around old Roxy Music tunes. It's ironic these gay characters use Bryan Ferry's songs as odes to each other, since Ferry was so notoriously straight. Oddly enough, the title Velvet Goldmine comes from a B-side Bowie tune found on the flip side of "Space Oddity." Also sprinkled throughout the film are great Glam Rock classics by Slade, The New York Dolls, and Lou Reed; half are the original recordings while others are covers done by the actors or people like Radiohead's Thom Yorke.
In addition to David Bowie's famous unwillingness to lend his support, Courtney Love also backed out from helping with the film and the soundtrack. She took one look at Ewan McGregor with his long blonde Iggy Pop hairstyle and immediately came to the conclusion they were channeling the bisexual side of Kurt Cobain. It didn't help matters that the character was named Curt Wild. Velvet Goldmine does feel a bit haunted by the ghost of Cobain in McGregor's performance, often recalling the sweet affect of the '90s grunge icon. When the film was released, it was all too apparent how the '70s sexual ambiguity of this era had influenced acts such as Nirvana, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, and others who idolized Bowie and his peers. It's as much about the music of the late '90s as it is about the era twenty years prior.
Taken purely as a fantasy and ignoring all the debates about who is represented by what, Velvet Goldmine is an exercise in sheer exciting style and execution. It shows how gay rock can be, while still exuding the tough and cool vibe one expects. It also shows how essential the gay community was to rock and roll in the '70s, a spirit captured very well in a stylized allegorical way. There are so many scenes with Christian Bale's character discovering his identity through music that ring painfully true, which proves to be the film's unending legacy.
Presented in 1.85:1/1080p high definition widescreen, you certainly don't want to upgrade to Blu-ray for this transfer. Although Velvet Goldmine looks fine on the new format, I couldn't see much difference from the DVD. Soft focus shots remain that way, grain is evident throughout, and the visuals aren't amped enough to match its late '90s peers. What's more, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is flawed. The music is very loud, often overpowering any of the dialogue that intersects it. The mix makes it punishingly loud any time a music interlude pops up, but the dialogue is so soft you strain to hear it. Although, I have to admit it looks as good as it did theatrically in 1998 when it played small art houses across the country.
The most compelling reason to purchase Velvet Goldmine (Blu-ray) is a brand new commentary from director Todd Haynes and producer Christine Vachon. They do a great job of telling viewers about the project, often revealing each scene's inspiration in life and history. It's an incredible track essential for fans of the film. Unfortunately, it's the only extra added to this release, aside from the film's theatrical trailer.
Velvet Goldmine is a fantastic collage of an era when David Bowie, Lou Reeed, and Iggy Pop helped to blur the sexual lines of rock and roll. Though never historically accurate, it does feel authentic. A rock and roll fairy tale made to be played at maximum volume.
Guilty of making Glam Rock look oh so stylish and chic.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R