Monday, November 12, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #52 - Velvet Goldmine (1998, dir. Todd Haynes)

No other modern filmmaker has traced the roots of queer iconography through the landscape of popular culture like Todd Haynes has. Every single one of his films wears the mask of different cinematic inspirations, from The Stepford Wives, B-horror films, and Fassbinder, to documentaries, to All That Heaven Allows (and the rest of Douglas Sirk’s lush canon) which provides a clever transition to a face of fascinating queer dynamics and dimensions underneath.
Following the arthouse success of his first two feature films, Poison and Safe, Haynes poured his all into a passion project that would tell the “unofficial” story of the rise and fall of glam rock called Velvet Goldmine. In the film Haynes borrows a genius plot device from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as we follow British journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) who is assigned the daunting story of finding out what happened to glam rock icon Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) an influential David Bowie-esque rock star who inspired millions of fans to explore their sexuality in gender bending style. At the height of his worldwide success Brian faked his death on stage at a sold out concert, a move that alienated his fans and destroyed his career. But what led him to such career suicide? Was it living in the shadow of an inspiration like musician Jack Fairy, a queer enigma who seemed to come straight from outer space? Was it the burning fire behind his relationship, both professional and much more, with hard rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor)? Or was it merely the shock of becoming a rising star under the guise of a persona that the world loved but Slade despised?
The true pleasure of watching Velvet Goldmine is watching how Haynes allows his journalist to connect the dots from the cold present day to a shiny, glittery past. With Brian Slade having never been heard from again, Arthur sets out to interview those closest to him from his bitter and long suffering ex-wife Mandy (Toni Collette) to his flamboyant and conniving ex-manager Jerry Devine (a fits-like-a-glove performance from Eddie Izzard) and everyone in-between. All the while Arthur inserts himself into Slade’s history from the point of view of one of his biggest fans, a teenager who is coming to terms with a burgeoning sexuality that Slade’s lyrics, style and appeal begins to influence. It is through Arthur that Todd Haynes’ real connection to the film comes through. When we watch young Arthur try on blush and eyeliner and become turned on listening to Brian Slade’s album, while leering over the elegant nude photos of the artist within, we feel a connection to Haynes’ teenage years. We can imagine what an epiphany he felt listening to the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Jobriath, the real artists whose stories and legends provide Velvet Goldmine its real glitter and we really hope that the fabulous legend that the filmmaker has brought to life matches the real life stories of some of rock’s biggest stars. 
These men who changed minds, music and the world for a delicious new better one also get paid tribute on the film’s explosive soundtrack that features some of the very songs that made that era infamous, covered by modern groups like Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, David Gray, Suede's Bernard Butler, and Roxy Music's Andy Mackay. The American musicians who played as Curt Wild's Wylde Ratttz on the soundtrack were The Stooges' Ron Asheton, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley, Minutemen's Mike Watt, Gumball's Don Fleming, and Mark Arm of Mudhoney. This great soundtrack features new songs written for the film by Pulp, Shudder to Think and Grant Lee Buffalo as well as many early glam rock compositions, both covers and original versions. The Venus in Furs cover several Roxy Music songs with Thom Yorke channeling Bryan Ferry on vocals, Placebo covers T. Rex's "20th Century Boy," Wylde Ratttz and Ewan McGregor cover The Stooges' "T.V. Eye" and "Gimme Danger," and Teenage Fanclub and Donna Matthews cover The New York Dolls' "Personality Crisis." Lou Reed, Brian Eno, T. Rex, and Steve Harley songs from the period are also included. Like the opening of the film disclaims: “Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should never the less be played at maximum volume.”
- Keith Garcia, Programming Manager, Denver Film Society

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