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Velvet Goldmine
Reviewed by Brandon Judell

Todd Haynes is without argument one of the best young American directors currently working. His Safe (1995), clearly a masterpiece when seen on the big screen, told the tale of a San Fernando Valley woman (Julianne Moore) who found herself physically deteriorating. Was she hypersensitive to the chemicals dousing every aspect of modern life? Or was she just allergic to life itself and having a nervous breakdown? Every line of dialogue, each sound, each and every camera angle was as perfectly realized as the performances.

His Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) told the life of the late singer using Barbie dolls. This cult film, unable to be shown because of blocked music rights, is a prized possession of those lucky enough to own black market video versions. Then there was 1991's Sundance Prize winner Poison, a trilogy of odd, unconnected stories: a young boy is able to fly after killing his father; a scientist isolates the sex drive in liquid form; and in a sensuous tribute to Jean Genet, a prison love story.

"Haynes' films are unique in construction," agrees Raymond Murray in Images in the Dark, "and he has a keen ability to take an abstract thought and translate it into more accessible terms. Though he has an admitted allegiance to the manners and technique of a grand Hollywood style, Haynes has yet to make what one would presume to call a mainstream picture."

Well, Velvet Goldmine is a major step toward the mainstream, but its length, over-the-top visuals, unbridled emotionality, and in-your-face homoerotica might just stop it from becoming a favorite mall attraction. But if you tell yourself you're going to see a rock opera, imagine Ken Russell's Tommy with a whole lot more brain cells churning, you might just have a hell of a time.

The film on one level is tribute to the seventies' glam rock era. Think Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Sparks, Roxy Music, Slade and T-Rex. Reminisce, if you can, over genderless fashions, boys with shoulder-length hair in makeup and girls in even more makeup. And don't forget those platform shoes, drugs, velvet pants, drugs, and glitter, glitter everywhere for all the world to see.

Into this visual wonderland, the beautiful bisexual Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Myers) decides to become a star. It doesn't matter whom he has to seduce or marry. With the spirit of Oscar Wilde at his elbow, he has a dream, and his dream will come true. And it does for a while until his "assassination."

Investigating the rise and fall of Mr. Slade ten years after his "death"is reporter Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale). Following a Citizen Kane motif, Stuart interviews various folks who knew Slade, hoping a collection of tidbits will add up to a solid whole, if not a solid soul. There is Slade's first manager, his wife (Toni Colette), plus his lover and fellow rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor).

As Wild recalls in a melancholy fashion: "We set up to change the world and wound up only changing ourselves."

"Nothing wrong with that," Stuart notes as he keeps searching. This is more than just an assignment for him. He was a teenager discovering his sexual self when he bought his first Slade LP. His room was plastered with Slade posters and articles. He even powdered his hair blue, dressed like Slade, and tried to have sex like Slade.

Yes, Velvet Goldmine is probably the best exploration of the relationship between a fan and his rocker-idol. (All About Eve falls into another category.) But Haynes would not be satisfied with just that. His is a complex look at sexuality plus a marvelous recapturing of a more innocent, yet sexually more raucous time. And maybe best of all, Velvet Goldmine is a grand musical boasting both classics by Brian Eno, Gary Glitter and Freda Payne, plus top-notch originals. The soundtrack is definitely a must-have.

But aside from the astute direction, songs, superb cinematography (Maryse Alberti), editing (James Lyon), make-up (Peter King) and costume design (Sandy Powell), you have the performances.

Raving about Ewan McGregor after Trainspotting and The Pillow Book or praising Toni Colette after Muriel's Wedding and Clockwatchers is almost a redundant task. They're fine again. But Mr. Bale, the child star of Steven Spielberg's underrated Empire of the Sun makes a welcome return to the screen. Teen angst and adult wistfulness has seldom been so well-portrayed in one film by the same actor.

But then there's Mr. Rhys-Meyers. If you missed him sniffing Minnie Driver's bed sheets and running nude into the ocean in The Governess, you'll be unprepared for his beauty and range. The boy can sing, dance, mope, swagger and seduce like few others. Calling him a British Leonardo might not be praise enough.

And saying you all must see Velvet Goldmine might be too much praise. This film is clearly not for everyone. At a recent cocktail party, fellow critic Rex Reed was calling the film "vile." Truthfully, it does at times get unwieldy, and the finale is not as superlative as the journey getting there, but there is so much that's splendid about this venture, you do at least owe yourself a peek.