Set in 1984 and told through flashbacks spanning ten years, the story begins in New York City. British ex-pat reporter, Arthur (Christian Bale), is assigned to uncover the "What ever happened to" story of Brian Slade, an androgynous and enigmatic rock star whose career soared and then quickly deteriorated in the aftermath of a publicity stunt involving his faked, on stage assassination. Up and coming heart-throb, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, possessed of a charismatic screen presence and ridiculously pretty face, is perfectly cast as Slade. One can speculate that his role in Velvet Goldmine will serve to propel his acting career into the stratosphere.
As Arthur seeks clues to the current whereabouts of Slade, his main sources of information are American garage rocker, Curt Wild, played by Ewan McGregor, and Slade's affected, social climbing ex-wife, Mandy, convincingly brought to life by Toni Collette. As the investigation unfolds, Arthur's personal recollections of his own involvement in England's glam scene reveal his past is perhaps more closely intertwined with that of both Slade and Wild than he lets on.
Dictated by the nature of his glam rock persona, Brian Slade wraps his identity in a fabricated musical alter-ego known as Maxwell Demon. The Slade/Demon character is quite obviously meant to examine David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust (the film, in fact, takes its title from a sexually explicit tune recorded during the Ziggy Stardust sessions). Subtle Bowie-isms include a visual homage to the cover photo of The Man Who Sold the World, depicting Slade's performance at an outdoor festival, dressed in an elaborate long frock, his hair cascading across his face and shoulders. At this same rock festival, Slade gets his first exposure to the outrageous and free-spirited antics of Curt Wild; again, a thinly-veiled representation of Bowie-contemporary, Iggy Pop. As Slade (with the help of his manager, played by British drag comedian, Eddie Izzard) endeavors to resurrect Wild's rocky career, a sexual spark ignites and a deep connection forms between the two stars.
The burgeoning love affair of Wild and Slade establishes the hub around which the lives of the main characters twist and, eventually, spiral downward. Perhaps meant as an in-your-face depiction of the essentially gay essence of glam, the love story is nevertheless completely engrossing. I was rooting for these two to get it on in every sense of the word. When Wild and Slade cruise in a convertible through a surrealistic dreamscape, while lip-synching to Lou Reed's sexually ambiguous "Satellite of Love," it's one of the most erotic love scenes ever captured on celluloid - and it contains no nudity or actual sex! It's interesting to note that the chemistry between Rhys-Meyers and McGregor is far more intense and believable than that between Rhys-Meyers and Collette. I understand both actors are sexually straight. Now that's acting!
The music of Velvet Goldmine has been meticulously crafted as a means of full- sensory transportation to the past. In addition to a precise and spot on perfect choice of classics by the likes of Gary Glitter, Brian Eno, Roxy Music and T-Rex, the film also required original music designed to sound like Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie and Stooges-era Iggy Pop. Thus two separate faux-bands were assembled from members of many other existing bands. Brian Slade's band, The Venus in Furs, features guitarist Bernard Butler, Paul Kimble and Radiohead's Thom Yorke. Curt Wild's band, The Wylde Rattz, is an amalgam of Mudhoney's Mark Arm, Mike Watt, Thurston Moore and Ron Asheton, an original member of the Stooges. Grant Lee Buffalo and indie-soundtrack fixtures, Shudder to Think, were recruited to write and perform additional original material. On occasion, McGregor and Rhys-Meyers handle their own vocals, as each actor completely embraces and transforms into his character.
In every musical moment, song selections emphasize a dramatic point and advance the narrative in a manner dialogue alone could not. Meeting for the first time in a London discotheque, Brian and Mandy clear the dance floor by the force of eye contact alone, as the two are drawn together beneath a spinning mirror ball for a slow dance set to Brian Ferry's "Ladytron." Stand out moments of powerful on-screen rock include Placebo's appearance as a bar band, covering T-Rex's "20th Century Boy," and Slade's ultimate emotional devastation and career downfall foreshadowed by Thom Yorke's vulnerable vocalization of Roxy Music's "Bitter-Sweet." Brian Eno's timeless anthem, "Needle in the Camel's Eye," (a song dearly owed a second life) soundtracks an Austin Powers-esque montage of glam psychedelia that accompanies the film's opening credits sequence. The music of Velvet Goldmine establishes a new paradigm by which all future pop-culture-based film soundtracks should be composed, compiled and executed. High fives all around on this one.
Velvet Goldmine will be released to theaters in November. I advise you to don your platform boots and satin trousers as you rush to be one of the first to witness a film destined for legendary status. The must-own soundtrack is available on London records.
Review on Pandemonium online