The astounding Haynes, whose last film ("Safe") took place on an entirely different planet from this one, brilliantly reimagines the glam-rock '70s as a brave new world of electrifying theatricality and sexual possibility, to the point where identifying precise figures in this neo-psychedelic landscape is almost beside the point. "Velvet Goldmine" tells a story the way operas do: blazing with exquisite yet abstract passions, and with quite a lot to look at on the side.
Structured as a rock "Citizen Kane" with an extraterrestrial Rosebud, "Velvet Goldmine" traces its tendrils back to Oscar Wilde, whom it imagines as a schoolboy. ("I want to be a pop idol," this child sweetly announces.) A century later, the Wildean spirit of flamboyance is spectacularly reborn, ready to erupt into the glittery, pansexual pop utopia over which Bowie so dramatically presided.
The film, with a vibrant soundtrack of glam-era homages and originals (performers like Roxy Music, T. Rex, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop are interwoven ingeniously), doesn't force its musical references on audiences, but it evokes them with vast fondness and fascination. "People have certain memories that they hold very dear, so you want to remain true to them," Christine Vachon, the film's audacious producer, has explained.
Out of the wild Ken Russellish phantasmagoria of "Velvet Goldmine" several essential characters emerge, central among them the Bowiesque Brian Slade. Played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a stunningly pretty, insolent, snake-hipped presence, he embodies the provocative and mysterious heart of the film. Haynes, cerebral as ever despite this film's explosion of visual sensuality, surrounds Slade with implicit questions about art and inspiration, truth and honesty, passion and repression. "You live in terror of NOT being misunderstood," Slade is eventually told by Mandy (Toni Collette), another witchily familiar figure here. Mandy is an American whose transformation into London party girl is, we're told, a great source of amusement to one and all.
Playing what he has rightly called "a birthday present of a part," Ewan McGregor makes a fabulously charismatic rock star named Curt Wild, who is both reproach and object of fascination for Brian Slade. Whatever else he may be, McGregor's often hilariously decadent Curt Wild is the real thing. With typically wicked wit, the film mentions that Curt underwent early shock treatments "to fry the fairy clean out of him" and that the net effect of this was "to make him bonkers every time he heard an electric guitar." The resultant mad-dog stage presence, with as much Jim Morrison as Iggy Pop, is exultantly displayed.
In a film that has at least one more major character than it needs, and that like "Safe" overworks its elusiveness in ways sure to confound some audiences, Christian Bale plays the journalist a la "Kane" who investigates Brian Slade from the chilly distance of 1984. That period is rendered no less fancifully than the film's rainbow days, as Bale's doleful Arthur Stuart reaches out from his dreary present to a past that both entices and humiliates him. Arthur, the fan who is forever linked to Curt Wild in one of the film's most exquisitely imaginative visions, conveys all the wistful distance of what it means to see the events here from the outside, looking in. On the same bill, and naturally paling in comparison to Haynes' thrilling pyrotechnics, is "Tangerine Dream," an Australian short by Keri Light that toys emptily with post-conversational small talk. "At least it was fast," someone at the screening remarked afterward, since it does hurtle along.
"Velvet Goldmine" was shown as part of the New York Film Festival.
Written by Janet Maslin for The New York Times, October 2, 1998.