Mark Asch on Velvet Goldmine
When you’re young, all your favorite art is about you, because you don’t know anyone else, not really. I first saw Todd Haynes’s glam-rock memory-palace, Velvet Goldmine, when I was 14 or so, soon after its theatrical release in 1998. I didn’t have out gay friends yet, and as far as I was concerned, this queer text—one in which misunderstood young people are singled out as different and marked for greatness, in which pop culture offers a view of your true self, which is both mirror and window—might as well have been a film about what it was like to be the only person I knew who cared about cool indie flicks like Velvet Goldmine.
Throughout the years that I’ve spent telling anyone who’ll listen that Velvet Goldmine “changed my life,” I’ve understood that Haynes’s film, with its raptures of reinvention and belonging, is a hard-won, fragile utopia following his time in the trenches of AIDS activism and the New Queer Cinema. It was a film for peers of mine whose burgeoning selfhoods hinged on things more consequential than cinephilia. But watching the film now, I’m newly surprised by how grounded I feel in the everyday world it transcends. Velvet Goldmine looks backwards to British austerity—but also forward to our own pandemic-age corporate-art dystopia. In Velvet Goldmine, “loving the alien,” as David Bowie once sang, is an act of real bravery, and the aura of specialness and scarcity that emanates from an import LP or cult hero is an affirmation of otherness, of hope for the possibility of escape and community. The film speaks to the importance, in a pre-digital world, of art that, like the self, is discovered.
Velvet Goldmine is about Bowie, though he is neither seen nor heard—nor named—in it. The Thin White Duke notoriously refused to license his music to the film, which premiered at Cannes the spring after Bowie’s Reznor-remixed “I’m Afraid of Americans” climbed the modern rock charts. In Velvet Goldmine, Haynes portrays Bowie avatar Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) as a ravenous consumer of other people’s styles and sexual energies, and revives the bisexual tease of the star’s ’70s glam persona, fan-fictionally positing a romance between Slade and the strung-out Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), who has Iggy Pop’s Raw Power-era leather pants, antagonistic stage presence and back catalog, and Lou Reed’s backstory of gay experimentation and electroshock therapy. The film is a “fairy story,” in several senses: for the music of Bryan Ferry’s Roxy Music, which appears throughout; for the Eno-in-a-boa androgynous glamour of fictional scene godhead Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland), surrounded throughout by extras dressed in Querelle sailor suits; and for the prevailing air of “once upon a time.”
It begins with another Wild(e)—Oscar—deposited on his parents’ Dublin doorstep by a UFO. Like Ziggy, he’s made of stardust: a future “pop icon,” in the child’s own anachronistic words. Signifying his famous destiny, the foundling comes adorned with a bauble of emerald or Kryptonite, an heirloom of a lineage from outside the harsh real world of factories and schools, which is passed among the stars of the film in turn, from Wilde to Fairy to Slade to Wild and on through the narrative. The storybook voiceover tells us that young Jack Fairy knows, despite schoolyard bullying, that “somewhere there were others just like him, singled out for a great gift,” a secret history that is both queerness specifically and a rarefied sense of aesthetic consequence more generally.
As played by Rhys Meyers, malleable-seeming and serpentlike in his beauty, Brian Slade is Bowie the chameleon, a hungry outsider, imitator and manipulator of himself and others. He filches the bauble from Jack Fairy and feeds on Curt Wild’s inspiration; neither mod nor rocker, he rises to fame thanks to the Ziggy-like persona Maxwell Demon, a performance of androgynous otherworldliness. Significant passages of his dialogue are verbatim Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Velvet Goldmine is a kaleidoscopic biopic of a modern mediated man, a master of self-invention with a hollow center. And so Haynes structures his film like Citizen Kane, with Christian Bale’s Arthur, a teen Slade superfan turned jaded reporter, chasing Slade’s shadows for a Where Are They Now? piece a decade on from the Rosebud moment when Slade staged his own assassination in-concert. It doesn’t add much to the movie to have the first flashback section told from the perspective of Slade’s spurned manager Cecil (Michael Feast, in a wheelchair and Jed Leland-like dressing gown), as most of the rest of the narrative is taken over by ex-wife Mandy Slade (Toni Collette), but it gives Velvet Goldmine a pastiche structure to go along with its pastiche protagonist.
Haynes the semiotician is a pasticheur like Slade or Bowie. In the 1988 radio doc Bowie at the Beeb, a BBC producer recalls how Bowie, doodling in the control booth of the recording studio one morning, sketched “a drawing of a singer with a hole in him, and the caption underneath was, ‘Singer being shot whilst on stage.'” (This segues into a version of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.”) Was Haynes thinking of that when he devised Slade’s variation on Bowie’s decision to kill off Ziggy Stardust? There are some deep cuts in Velvet Goldmine, assembled with a teen scrapbooker’s zeal. Brian Slade’s first words to Mandy—“Do you jive?”—come from Angela Bowie’s accounts of their marriage, as does the image of Slade and Wild sleeping naked and apparently postcoital in bed together (in Ang’s version it was Mick Jagger). Sandy Powell’s fabulous costumes, with their dandified space-age retro sexiness, riff on Bowie’s various ’70s personae and stage guises, and song lyrics sneak into dialogue: Mandy calls Brian “the prettiest star” (Haynes got away with one there) and plagiarizes “2HB,” Roxy Music’s paean to silver-screen glamour. The Australian Collette is playing an American attempting to affect an English accent, and Mandy’s voice runs up and down the octaves in a sad echo of her lost love Brian’s own transformations.
The soundtrack is a pastiche, too. The songs triangulate around the absent Bowie, with vintage tracks from his early-’70s glam contemporaries, Bowie mockups, and covers by New Labour Britpop acts and one-off supergroups. (To this day I still feel disoriented when I listen to “2HB” and hear Bryan Ferry’s voice instead of Thom Yorke’s uncanny imitation.) The music in the film conveys a euphoric thirst for experience from the opening credits—kids in hip-huggers and scarves and hats on their way to a Brian Slade concert, running in platforms to the almost sobbing abandon of Eno’s “Needle in the Camel’s Eye,” touching up their makeup in shop windows, feeding on each other’s excitement. The film’s chronology is a delirious and decadent razzle-dazzle of flashbacks alongside fantasy sequences, music videos, and live performances.
Thanks to the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack CD, I spent much of my early high school years in that swirling headspace. Both movie and album, seeded as they were with references and connections, were perfect for a budding trainspotter such as myself, and I spent literal hours on the family computer reading raptly about music I’d never heard, mapping the All Music Guide’s hyperlinks onto my neurons. For some people, discovering culture is a social act, but I was never one for zines or all-ages shows or tape trading. While other future film people were out playing with the family camcorder, making movies of their own, I was reading old Pauline Kael reviews and reactions to the AFI 100, arriving at the Discourse in the middle and trying to pick up as much as possible of what I’d already missed from context.
As a cultural consumer I was preemptively atomized, navigating a set menu of options. That’s the kind of viewer we’ve all been in this locked-down year, and the kind of viewer that the people who aim the Content Hose are telling us that we want to be going forward. When AT&T announced that the 2021 Warner Brothers slate would be released directly to HBOMax in a desperate play to bolster the foundering streaming service, it justified its decision with the language of consumer choice and convenience. It is also convenient for them, as for all streamers and their investors, to starve us of the kinds of physical spaces that facilitate discovery and foster community. (Arthur, finally arriving in London without a place to crash, meets some fellow glam kids at a show, and becomes their roommate. They’re even in a band!)
Velvet Goldmine taught the young, atomized me that being a cultural consumer could be more than a passive act—how it could, rather, be active, creative, constructive. That’s what I’ve always meant when I say, as I still do, that Velvet Goldmine changed my life. (Another Wilde quote Haynes drops into the film, from The Picture of Dorian Gray: “He felt that he had known them all, those strange terrible figures that had passed across the stage of the world [...]. It seemed to him that in some mysterious way their lives had been his own.”) I found myself by teaching myself what I should care about, just as Brian Slade assembles his art and Todd Haynes assembled his movie out of pieces of everything and everyone around them, as young Arthur finds himself by learning, from liner notes and music magazines, how people like him are supposed to dress and act and move through the world—how to actually be the person he feels that he is. And I identified with the movie’s almost mystical take on vocation, in all that business with the brooch. Velvet Goldmine is a movie not so much about “feeling seen” as about seeing yourself somewhere else—a somewhere with a history to learn and a heritage to claim.
The hinge of the entire movie is the moment when young, closeted Arthur sees Brian Slade on television, discussing his bisexuality at a press conference, and leaps up from the floor, pointing at the TV and shouting: “That’s me, dad! That’s me!” Baby Bale is rosy-cheeked, vulnerable; his parents are stone-faced, disapproving, porridge-gray and ancient. The TV is tiny—the little wooden set is on the floor, dwarfed by the soot-stained floral wallpaper and suffocating lace curtains and all the little kitchen-sink decorative touches—yet this flickering little box, both mirror and window for Arthur, is an aperture to something much grander and more vivid—more real—than the world that dwarfs it. The moment is so powerful—so cringingly vulnerable and youthfully brave—that I don’t think the 14-year-old version of me even realized that the moment is not Arthur’s flashback, but his fantasy. And because this is Far from Heaven director Haynes we’re talking about, we also might note that the scene is a parallel, sincere rather than ironic, with the TV-set scene in All That Heaven Allows, in which lonely Jane Wyman’s face is reflected in the blank screen as the salesman’s patter seems to mock her isolation: “All you have to do is turn that dial, and you have all the company you want, right there on the screen. Drama, comedy... life's parade at your fingertips.” (Shot today, there’d be a scene in which Jane Wyman’s kids teach her how to log into Netflix on her Smart TV.)
The young Brian Slade “never cared much for the suburbs,” we’re told. Before he started tarting himself up like a miniature Little Richard and singing “Tutti Frutti” in his living room, he went to postwar London to see the music-hall shows. One shot, of the fresh-faced little Brian sitting in the balcony with his hair neatly parted and holiday-best clothes freshly laundered, seems to reference The Long Day Closes. Haynes borrows from Terence Davies a belief in the sacralizing power of popular song, juxtaposed with working-class sexual guilt and the grimness of the closet in austerity Britain, as seen when the lad wanders backstage and sees a drag performer giving a blowjob, or in the censorious rages of Arthur’s father.
In those scenes, the golden age of the British youthquake hasn’t yet emerged; in the present-day of the film, when Arthur conducts his interviews, it’s already withered and died. The film’s version of 1984 is an alternate-future past with the streamlined gray shitty-futuristic authoritarian textures of the Reagan-Thatcher era; it’s a lament over the vulture-like arrival of big money in a niche subculture, and over 1970s rockers’ hard pivot away from effeminacy the minute AIDS emerged.
I used to think it was silly that Haynes, in the 1984 scenes, outlined a vague conspiracy about bland corporate rock and its complicity with the security state. Now I’m not so sure—not when the much-heralded future of the entertainment industry is algorithmically generated home broadband sweeteners masquerading as art, and the act of consumption is beginning to resemble another British dystopia about aesthetic conformity, the one about being immobilized in a chair and subjected to an unrelenting torrent of brain-bleaching Content. Seen from the vantage of the endless 2020, Velvet Goldmine comes back around to universality. It inspires you to be not just a consumer, but an aesthete, curator, explorer, and invests those identities with life-or-death urgency.