After watching Todd Haynes gradually shift towards traditionalist, Douglas Sirk-inspired dramas like Carol & Far From Heaven, it’s been fascinating to return to the wild, fractured, untamed excess of his earlier, more transgressive works. Haynes’s debut feature, Poison, was a roughly assembled, anxiously queer anthology that covered territory as widely varied as 1950s mad scientist B-pictures & Jean Genet’s masterful, poetic smut Our Lady of the Flowers. Before that debut, his name-making short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story re-imagined a high profile celebrity tragedy through hand-operated Barbie dolls. It’d be near impossible to reconcile the two disparate ends of Haynes’s beautifully improbable career, the controlled drama & the wildly fractured art film, if it weren’t for his magnum opus, Velvet Goldmine, a glam rock opera that somehow encapsulates the totality of what the director has accomplished to date in a single picture. Velvet Goldmine remains Haynes’s grandest achievement by somehow elevating his youthful passion for melodrama, disorder, and camp to the level of the Oscar-minded prestige productions he’d later settle into as he aged within the industry, all while remaining aggressively, unapologetically queer. It’s overwhelming to watch a filmmaker this ambitious throw every possible tone & technique he can achieve at the screen, but drowning in Haynes’s chaotic, yet glamorous sensibilities is a pure, intoxicating pleasure.
Christian Bale stars as an ex-Brit reporter working out of NYC on an investigative assignment about the publicity stunt “murder” of a glam rock star he had worshipped religiously as a queer teen. It had been a decade since British rocker Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) faked his own death onstage & disappeared from the public limelight. It seems as if the glam rock lifestyle, with its outrageous gender-androgynous costumes & conspicuous absence of sexual norms, had died along with that persona. Through the relatively dull framing device of watching Bale’s gloomy reporter research the missing Slade, Haynes opens up the wild world of glam rock past in a series of disjointed vignettes following Slade’s life from birth to “death”. The film is primarily concerned with Slade’s musical collaboration & bisexual affair with American proto-punk icon Curt Wilde (Ewan McGregor), an obsessive relationship that wrecked his sobriety, his closeness with his wife (Toni Collette), and his overall ambition to change the world through the transformative power of rock n’ roll. Haynes crafts a deliberately messy, loose story out of this rock n’ roll romance by employing every tool he had in his arsenal: the Barbie doll performances of Superstar, the James Bidgood tableaus & Jean Genet allusions of Poison, the Douglas Sirk melodrama of Safe & Far From Heaven, flesh on flesh pansexual erotica, etc. He also conjures glam rock’s natural mystique by allowing X-Files style record company conspiracy theories & supernatural claims that Oscar Wilde’s origins as a space alien changeling to inform his narrative without batting an eye. The only restrained-feeling aspect of the plot is Bale’s investigative framing device, but even that boasts the perverse virtue of essentially reimagining Citizen Kane as a glam rock opera.
Although narratively loose & ambiguous, Velvet Goldmine clearly evokes two real-life romances/collaborations in this patchwork plot: David Bowie’s affair with Iggy Pop & Britain’s affair with American rock. Slade is a clear Bowie stand-in, a connection deliberately referenced in the title & unappreciated by Bowie himself, who threatened to sue before the script went into rewrites. The film mostly follows the Ziggy Stardust & post-hippie eras of Bowie’s career before his romace/heroin-sharing/music collaboration with Iggy Pop unraveled those glory days. It’s a relationship that’s understood more through myth & rumor than confirmed, openly admitted fact, so Haynes is smart to abstract any 1:1 comparison, even if it was a decision inspired by threat of a lawsuit. Bowie’s life story is blended with other pop stars like Marc Bolan & Buster Poindexter to create the figure of Brian Slade, while Curt Wilde emerges as a similar blend of Iggy Pop & Lou Reed. This abstraction & democratization of their characters leads to the film feeling like a larger, more mythical tale of American & British rock n’ roll’s endless back & forth romance & collaboration than an affair between two queer men in the 70s & 80s. A childhood Little Richard drag routine Slade stages in his parents’ living room feels just as essential to his stage persona evolution as any of the film’s Oscar Wilde space alien weirdness, making this moment in time shared between British & American rock to feel like a smaller thread in much larger tapestry, albeit an essential one. Velvet Goldmine depicts glam rock as less of a craze or a passing fad than a failed revolution that very nearly topped the world in a flood of glitter & lube before it lamely succumbed to the pitfalls of heroin & romantic jealousy. Bowie & Iggy were useful figured for that story, but the overall effect is much larger than anything two men could amount to alone.
Velvet Goldmine was a box office bomb that was met with middling, confused critical response upon its initial release. It’s the exact kind of overly ambitious, insularly passionate art picture that’s doomed for cult status over wide appeal, but I selfishly wish that were the kind of art Haynes were still making today. As much as I appreciate Carol‘s intoxicating allure, it feels like a film that could have been pulled off by any number of visually skilled, queer-minded craftsmen. Velvet Goldmine, by contrast, is undeniably a Todd Haynes film. The same way Citizen Kane posits that a man’s full persona can’t be contained by a single picture, Velvet Goldmine argues the same for the spirit of glam rock at large. Haynes structures this argument around a sprawling all-inclusive clusterfuck of every weird, passionate idea he’s ever projected onto the screen in his life. It’s a magnum opus that makes room for drag queens, Barbie dolls, Bowie worship, Oscar Wilde conspiracy theories, an extended cameo from glam-revivalist band Placebo, and Ewan McGregor’s spread-open butt cheeks. It’s risky, go-for-broke cinema that doesn’t have a 100% success rate in its individual elements at play (Christian Bale’s gloomy sulking is a lot to stomach), but consistently impresses in its visual beauty & sheer audacity. It’d be a cultural tragedy if we never see Haynes working in that mode again.