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Review: 'Velvet Goldmine' sinks like a glam rock

Web posted on:
Monday, November 16, 1998 12:49:44 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Before any more people start suggesting that I'm out to butcher every movie I see - even my friends file my positive reviews under "forget immediately" -- I'd like to point out that I mentioned how much I was anticipating the release of Todd Haynes' latest picture, "Velvet Goldmine," when I covered "The Governess" over three months ago. I loved Haynes' last movie, "Safe," when it was released back in 1995, and still consider it to be one of the more challenging films of the decade.

I also assumed that Haynes' previously displayed willingness to explore gay subject matter would be perfect for "Velvet Goldmine"'s central topic -- namely, the sexually ambiguous glam rock scene of the early 1970s.

Theatrical preview for "Velvet Goldmine"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

Clip: "Sliced Beatles"

Video clip: 2.6Mb QuickTime

You know glam, even if you don't think you do. It's the big boots-and-lipstick crowd, supposedly dangerous-yet-alluring creatures like David Bowie, Lou Reed as the Rock & Roll Animal, T. Rex, and Mott the Hoople. If you want a current-day example, it's probably Prince (I'll call him "The Artist" if he'll call me "Mr. Omnipotence"), albeit only when he's acting all horny. The glam guys, though, churned out far more overtly primal guitar riffs than the little guy does.

I've read several critics already who've actually applauded "Velvet Goldmine"'s lack of focus, as if audacity is a free ride to artistic success. The idea seems to be that if you try something different, you've automatically accomplished something. Well, I'm more likely to applaud a movie that's different if it manages to be different and complex at the same time. It can happen, you know. Check out "Safe" to see what I mean.

Fun and empty

"Velvet Goldmine," I'm extremely sorry to say, isn't about anything more than what glam rock was so flamboyantly celebrating -- the fun of sparkly surfaces and false other-worldliness. If you bother to scratch through the silver glitter eye shadow, there's absolutely no movie left. That lack of depth (and far too many drugs) is why the movement fell apart in the first place! I don't need Haynes to help me figure that out. It makes sense, though, that a movie that's mostly about pretending so consistently pretends that it's uncovering some kind of deeper truth.

I'm telling you, I was bored stiff.

The movie begins oddly, and I considered that promising. Haynes makes a wacky leap from the childhood of Oscar Wilde to the streets of London just as the original glam star-child, Brian Slade (played by the dreadfully dull Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who's also in "The Governess") is about to kill off his alter ego, a Ziggy Stardust-like creation known as Maxwell Demon.

Maxwell gets pretend-shot in front of thousands of fans during a live performance, but the death is only temporary. He continues performing, but eventually disappears for good when his followers get tired of posing and smoking French cigarettes as a way of life.

Haynes drops the ball despite solid playing field

Then, in 1984 (a vague Orwellian reference that never really amounts to anything), a newspaper writer named Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is assigned the task of finding out where Slade is now ... if, in fact, he's anywhere. Arthur was there when Maxwell was "offed," and we get flashbacks to his years as a teen-age fan, during which he latches onto the glam movement and begins exploring his own sexuality.

It's an extremely rich playing field for a movie, but Haynes quickly drops the ball and kicks it around for a couple hours as he tries to recover the fumble. There are some extremely wrong-headed script choices, especially in relation to Arthur, who seldom even gets any real dialogue, outside of asking former glam participants what they know about Brian.

During the flashbacks we do see him arguing a little bit with his uncomprehending parents, but that's what happens when Pop walks in on you masturbating to a newspaper photo of a guy who looks like the radioactive lovechild of Carmen Miranda.

The movie lifts a great deal from Bowie's life, including his musical and sexual dabbling with vocally challenged American crazy person Iggy Pop. In the movie, Pop is named Curt Wild. Ewan McGregor plays Wild, and he fares much better than Rhys-Meyers does, although (when they're not performing) even he doesn't do much but look like he's nodding out on smack. Once again, there isn't much actual conversing between the characters, aside from a wide variety of come-ons and false-eyelash flutters.

Gawking at drag queens

There is, however, a whole lot of foolish philosophizing (sometimes aimed directly at the camera) about the political subtext of dressing up and getting down with members of the same sex. Haynes, who's not dumb, somehow manages to perceive the entire subculture in the same way that a tourist might gawk at a West Village drag queen.

It looks real naughty, I guess, but all kinds of people get naughty in a wide variety of ways. It would have been nice if Haynes could've shown us something about these people's lives, rather than having a bunch of mannequins pontificate about the all-empowering kink.

An especially aggravating gesture on Haynes' part is a series of overt stylistic references to "Citizen Kane." Once again, it's a surface issue that adds up to nothing more than a knowing little wink at the audience, and it shows a disturbing lack of imagination.

It's silly enough that Slade's former manager (Michael Feast) is interviewed in a hospital while relaxing in a wheelchair a la Joseph Cotten, but Bale's empty nightclub encounter with Slade's drunken, embittered ex-wife (Toni Collette) had me grimacing. I hope that Haynes has a lot more up his sleeve next time around than a bunch of fey lip-smacking and film student in-jokes.

It's enough to convert you to classical music.

"Velvet Goldmine" is loaded with sexual contact of every variety, including a particularly democratic orgy scene. There's drug use, profanity, and even full frontal male nudity (by McGregor, who's giving Harvey Keitel a run for his money in that department). The fashions are outlandish, the live performances often pretty solid, and the soundtrack is top-notch. I've said this about other movies, but it's unavoidable -- buy the record. Rated R. 117 minutes.

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