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PRINT October 1998

ALL THAT GLITTERS: TODD HAYNES’ VELVET GOLDMINE

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 Superstar and more recently Safe, Haynes’ 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, glam 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.

In Haynes’ reimagined version, David Bowie and Iggy Pop fall in love. As the Bowie figure, whose name is Brian Slade (there were a lot of Brians on the glitter scene), the nineteen-year-old Jonathan Rhys Meyers captures the young Bowie’s tremulousness and his vacant narcissism; he’s not a bad singer, either. Brian is a born bottom. He doesn’t know exactly why he wants to do his acoustic act in a dress, but the first time he sees Curt Wild, the Iggy character, wigging out onstage, he knows that a dress isn’t enough. It’s an endearing—and convincing—portrayal of love at first sight, partly because Rhys Meyers understands that to succumb to an emotion that compromising you have to be a little bit stupid; as Brian watches this electric (in every sense) performance, his astonished face betrays admiration, sexual fascination, and a self-reproach (“Why didn’t I think of that?”) that is the seed of abject devotion. Although Ewan McGregor has already established himself, in Trainspotting and other movies, as a gifted young actor, I doubt that anybody will be prepared for the demented abandon of his performance as Curt Wild. He’s made up to look like Iggy (with a touch of Kurt Cobain), but looks are easy; you don’t expect an actor playing a singer to be able to put over a song with this kind of force. McGregor sings in his own voice and waves his own dick around like a genuine madman—but then if an Iggy impersonation isn’t scary, it’s nothing.

So why, with the great music, the funny period re-creations, and the superb acting, does the movie fall apart in the second hour?

For one thing, Brian and Curt’s affair doesn’t have anything close to the charge of their stage acts. The love scenes play out like ’40s melodrama; they don’t even rise to the oomph of Douglas Sirk. Haynes is so busy staging numbers for and around the two men that they barely get to talk, and so, while they have plenty of chances to flesh out their characters’ stage personae, they can’t get very far into the characters themselves. (Toni Collette, who plays Brian’s American wife, Mandy—a woman who suddenly finds herself sexually irrelevant—goes much deeper into her role, bringing real heat to Mandy’s bitterness. But she has the advantage of being able to build her character offstage.)

It’s still a little startling to see men kiss passionately onscreen—but that’s all. About the only thing Brian and Curt’s kisses really accomplish is guaranteeing that the movie won’t reach the kids in the malls who might adore it. The sex feels like a gay artist’s statement: obligatory and earnest. As the movie dragged through its second hour, with too much torture and far too many ideas, I couldn’t help thinking that Haynes is one director a little cheapness wouldn’t hurt. He wants to do everything: a musical, a melodrama, an experimental film, and a political statement; he stuffs the picture with so many cultural references—from English music-hall drag to Brian Epstein’s crush on John Lennon—that eventually it suffers from bloat. And not all his ideas are that great. In an opening sequence that is the movie’s weirdest touch, space aliens deposit the infant Oscar Wilde on his parents’ doorstep; a few years later the child announces, “I want to be a pop star.” The notion of the flamboyant Wilde as the first pop star is certainly clever, but Wilde isn’t at home presiding over this picture; Haynes is drawn to irony, but he isn’t an ironist. The parallel he has in mind becomes clear when he stages a scene in which a frail child, beaten by his little peers, smears the blood on his lips into his first ruby lipstick: persecution converted into ostentation—the birth of glam. But I don’t buy it. Wilde wasn’t persecuted until late in his career, and I can’t think of many glitter rockers who suffered for their sexual preference. Brian Slade and Curt Wild don’t, either. They just suffer for love.

Haynes’ moral urgency puts him at odds with the playful shallowness of glam, which was the most appealing thing about it. Glam marked the decline of seriousness. It was the forerunner of disco; punk was a disgusted reaction to it. As we now know, Bowie wasn’t a sexual rebel, he was a packaging genius. Of course, it didn’t matter (at the time) to all those kids in platform heels; what liberated them—and him—was the fantasy he projected. But by the ’70s the dream had eroded from revolution to hedonism, and hedonism doesn’t suit Haynes’ temperament; the nugget of inauthenticity that won’t go down isn’t his faithlessness to the facts but the dogged idealism he puts into reimagining them. The fathers of glam, the Rolling Stones, summed up those years when they made an album called It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll. Haynes is there, beetle-browed behind the camera, insisting, Oh no, it’s more! He fell into a similar trap in Poison when, in saluting Genet for his moral courage, he ripped out the talons that made him Genet. Hip is a concept that shatters if you poke it too hard. Haynes pokes, he prods, but the soul of glam eludes him. The era was about freedom from responsibility; Haynes is wonderfully, hopelessly responsible. Glam was about reckless fun, and Velvet Goldmine is above all that.

Craig Seligman writes frequently about books and film.