Velvet Goldmine (1998)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

I think the burning question about this recent string of live action Disney remakes is: why do this at all? Is this really necessary? Why instead of coming up with new stories are they remaking “the classics”? After this rendition of Beauty and the Beast, I have fewer answers than before, and I didn’t have many then.

The main draw to this version is the all-star cast: Emma Watson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson. All the performances were fine, some even great; it’s just a shame many of them were hiding behind less than good CGI for what was basically the whole movie. That being said, Emma Watson played the role of Belle with an honest earnestness even when the rest of the cast was computerized. She’s actually made for this role, since the Disney version of Belle is as close to Princess Hermione as you’re ever going to get.

One of the ways this remake tried to freshen things up was by giving more explanation and backstory for the characters. Sadly, most of that felt like a forced afterthought. For instance, we get to hear about the Beast’s mean, old dad, but we never catch the Beast’s (the Prince of the fairy tale’s) name, nor any details of how exactly his dad was bad. Belle’s new, fleshed out history was in a few ways worse, in that it made the whole timeline of things nonsense. She quotes Romeo and Juliet, but has escaped Paris because of the plague. If you know anything about the history of the Black Plague & Shakespeare, or have access to Google, then you probably know that those two things are about 200 years apart. Sure, it’s nice to find out why exactly she’s stuck in this awful town and why she has a dead Disney mom, but I feel like it’s a little bit unnecessary. Which I guess brings us to the other character change-up, the elephant in the room: the gay stuff.

Oh, Le Fou, you poor thing. As the controversy around this movie mounted around the idea of him being gay, I already thought it was too good to be true. In my heart, I knew that there was no way Disney was going to make a fully formed human being of a gay character. At least I had no hopes to crush. He is a lovesick fool who occasionally gives catty advice to equally swooning gals. He’s the same old sniveling sidekick as he is in the original, just this time with more innuendo and a catty attitude. Having it cranked up a couple notches isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but given Disney’s track record on gay characters (Oh hey that one character in Frozen for 5 seconds and Ursula) it’s a bit tasteless. Though Le Fou is coded as a stereotypical sassy gay friend, I’m not going to lie, the dynamic between Gaston and him was what kept me sane throughout. In any other setting, their give and take would have made for a humorous cabaret type act: Gaston the slimy hypermasculine villain, Le Fou his emotional support. The musical duet between the two of them is one of the highlights of the movie.

In fact, Beauty and the Beast shines brightest when it comes to the musical numbers executed by real people. In the opening sequence the choreography is fun and mesmerizing. Belle’s iconic opening number is full of wonderfully synchronized moves. It’s fun, until it gets to the castle. It’s fun until you have to witness a bunch of 3D animated flatware execute a Busby-Berkeley style number in a movie that’s supposed to be a live action remake. It just feels like such great irony.

The real saving factor here, though, is that no matter how bombastic the tunes, over dramatic the themes, or mediocre the animation, this movie has a light hearted laugh at itself every now and then. It’s a pleasant reminder than in the midst of everything else this is still just a family film. Still, it’s hard not to watch it and think of the beloved animated classic longingly, especially as it just keeps dragging on and getting bogged down with new superfluous details, unmemorable added songs, and an aesthetic that could have sorely benefited from practical effects.

-Alli Hobbs

Beginners (2011)

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Immediately after falling in love with 20th Century Women, a film I’ve retroactively declared the best movie of 2016, I went home to watch writer-director Mike Mills’s previous work, Beginners. The immediacy of dividing into Beginners was not necessarily an extension of its convenient availability on Netflix Streaming (not that it hurt), but more a result of the film’s obvious connection to Mills’s subsequent work (and, in my opinion, his best to date). Much like 20th Century Women, Beginners finds Mike Mills in a self-reflective mode, capturing a semi-autobiographical moment in one of his parent’s lives in a loving, spiritual work of non-linear cinema. Instead of detailing the impossibly endearing persona of his ever-present mother like in 20th Century Women, Beginners tackles his much more complex relationship with his once-distant father. The two movies aren’t perfectly, exactly analogous but they’re undeniable in their parallels and they work well as sister films (an odd thing to say about someone obsessed about his parentage as an only child).

Beginners opens with Mills’s on-screen surrogate (an as-charming-as-ever Ewan McGregor) cleaning out the house his father lived & died in as an old man. In what’s appearing to be a trademark narrative style, Mills tells the entire life story of the recently deceased parent up front, then doubles back to color in the details for context. We learn immediately that he was not a great father to his only child in his youth, being mostly absent for his son’s formative years. This is explained largely to be a result of his quiet suffering as a closeted homosexual, something he concealed from the public until after his wife’s death. We mostly see the man as his son remembers him: openly gay, struggling with poor physical health in his 70s, acting as a makeshift father figure for his much younger weirdo boyfriend, and shining as happier than ever. This narrative thread mixes with a separate timeline where his son, grieving for the loss of both of his parents, struggles to form a healthy romantic relationship based on the ideals of the home he grew up in. He also struggles with a self-absorbed ennui he solemnly knows his parents didn’t have the luxury of, due to the times of War and queer & Jewish persecution that dominated their own heyday.

Reductively speaking, Beginners is not as impressive of a film as 20th Century Women. At times it can feel like a less-confident trial run of that far-superior work. It’s still a great movie in its own right, though, one that excels due to the same multi-media, multi-POV approach to a narrative structure Mills would later apply to its follow-up. Still images & physical photographs are used to evoke a period setting. Historical context seeps in to inform the film’s non-linear biographies through news footage & coldly presented facts. The scope of its story pulls back not just to cover its characters’ lives, but the essence of life on Earth. In my personal favorite touch, the nonverbal thoughts if the deceased father’s Jack Russell terrier are presented in subtitles, a detail that increases in frequency as the dog becomes more of a central character. Although I can’t cite Beginners as my favorite Mike Mills movie, it’s easily one of the best Jack Russell terrier movies I’ve ever seen, rivaling even Russell Madness (a lofty target, I know). In watching the dog communicate thoughts like, “The darkness is about to consume us if something drastic doesn’t happen right now,” or the father drunkenly discovering the simple joy of gay club music or his son learning to become a more loving, empathetic person in his grief-stricken moment of crisis, Beginners unfolds as an interesting, delicately beautiful work of personal revelation. Comparing it to the virtues of the immediately similar works from its director might undercut some of what makes it so special as a singular piece of art, but it is special all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Miles Ahead (2016)

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“When you’re creating your own shit, man . . . even the sky ain’t the limit.” –Miles Davis, supposedly

After watching Miles Ahead in its entirety it’s difficult to tell if the above quote, which appears on an opening title card, was actually something Miles Davis said or if it’s something in the spirit of what Miles Davis would say. Either way, first-time filmmaker, longtime badass Don Cheadle holds onto the sentiment of that quote like a mission statement or a war cry. Miles Ahead is dressed up like a Miles Davis biopic, but functions much more like an expressionistic gangster film, mirroring the way Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song falls just on the art film side of blaxploitation. This Don Cheadle passion project (starring, written, and directed by Cheadle himself) pursues an over the top dedication to creative license with his subject’s life story that makes for a disjointed, but controlled variation on biopic conventions and, wouldn’t you know it, the result feels a little like jazz. I could see how someone could find Cheadle’s many eccentric decisions silly, but I found myself impressed by his cavalier ambition. In the end I believe your enjoyment of Miles Ahead boils down to whether or not you think its choices & attitude are, for lack of a better word, cool. Personally, I was buying all of the cool cat absurdism Cheadle was selling with very few reservations.

Instead of following the traditional cradle-to-grave narrative of biopic tedium, Miles Ahead focuses on two distinct points in its jazz legend’s career. In one storyline he’s the famous jazz world equivalent of a rockstar, struggling with typical music giant clichés you’d see ripped to shreds in spoofs like Walk Hard & Popstar: intense recording sessions, pressure to succeed, hedonistic lovemaking with strangers, trouble with a too-understanding spouse, etc. This lens is mostly a glimpse into the tame, by the numbers biopic Miles Ahead could’ve been. The other fixed temporal point is a highly fictionalized down period where Davis is a strung out, Howard Hughes style loner, except trading in germaphobia for depressive squalor. In this 1970s spiritual low point he teams up with a Rolling Stone reporter charged with writing his supposed comeback story to go on a guns & coke-fueled caper to maintain control of his latest unreleased recordings in the face of the record company execs & thugs desperate to rip him off (by satisfying his contract), including an eternally underutilized Michael Stuhlbarg among their ranks. This bifurcated structure recalls the genre subversion of last year’s Love & Mercy, except that Cheadle chooses not to keep his two halves separate. The haze of memory & drug fueled hallucination allow the walls of reality to break down and the two timelines bleed together, mixing the action thriller absurdism & glory days revisitation into a highly explosive cocktail that might be more interesting than essential, but is certainly much more entertaining that it would’ve been if Cheadle played the material straight.

A lot of viewers have been turned off by Miles Ahead’s gleeful tampering with its subject’s life story (with curmudgeony critic Rex Reed being the biggest whiner/detractor out there, which is usually an automatic sign of greatness), but I think the film’s gambles pay off just fine as soon as you separate the real life Miles Davis from the fictional, gun-wielding drug addict Cheadle brings to the screen. This is not a biographical portrait so much as an attempt to capture Davis’s energetic spirit in the weirdly cool & inherently tragic shape of an action cinema anti-hero. Where I find this experiment brilliant is in Cheadle’s willingness to trade in one genre’s flat, uninteresting, trope-laden formula for the much more exciting, much trashier energy of an entirely different kind of picture, one audiences usually have a much easier time focusing on. The writer-director-star has even admitted that he constructed Ewan McGregor’s Rolling Stone writer character merely because he needed a white face onscreen to sell more tickets & secure better funding, which is obviously fucked, but incredibly practical. Cheadle obviously holds tremendous adoration for Davis and wanted his film, which he believes captures the artist’s spirit, to reach the widest audience possible, presumably to spread that adoration.

Ultimately, though the results in Miles Ahead are too strange for wide commercial appeal, mirroring too many eccentric energies from Davis’s work, whether funk or jazz or subculture cool, for any hopes of runaway commercial success. The movie’s similarly unlikely to win over a large chunk of the art film crowd either, since they can be less kind to experimental, but messy debuts from actors-turned-directors, as we saw with Ryan Gosling’s better-than-its-reputation Lost River last year. I don’t want to suggest that Miles Ahead is 100% successful in capturing spirit instead of truth or bringing jazz’s idiosyncrasies to cinematic life. I do think, however, that it’s a surprisingly fun & playful marriage of fine art technique with trash genre thrills, which is more or less my favorite kind of movie magic formula. The only time Don Cheadle’s gambles don’t particularly work for me is in a closing concert sequence that bleeds into the end credits. I’m willing to overlook that discomfort, though, and mileage may vary there since, truth be told, I don’t really like jazz (sorry y’all). I mostly showed up for Miles Ahead’s dangerous, iconoclastic experiments with action-packed absurdism. Cheadle’s debut did not disappoint there. I hope he gets more chances to step behind the camera & deliver more work this confidently strange in the future, despite his first film’s muted reception.

-Brandon Ledet