You make me act real gone, you make me trawl along
I had to ravish your capsule, suck you dry
Feel the teeth in your bone, heal ya head with my own
Why if I don't have you home, we'll have to fight alone
Hang all together
Velvet Goldmine, you stroke me like the rain
Snake it, take it, panther princess you must stay
Velvet Goldmine, naked on your chain
I'll be your king volcano right for you again and again
My Velvet Goldmine
--David Bowie, “Velvet Goldmine”
Released as a B-side to “Space Oddity” when Bowie re-released it in '75, “Velvet Goldmine” had been gathering dust for a while by that point. Its original lyrics were rumored to be along the lines of “I have lots and lots of sex with dudes” and spent four minutes being totally blunt about it and not couching it in euphemism at all. Even in '71, which was Bowie's prime wearing-a-dress-on-his-album-covers period and winking at the line “Gotta make way for the homo superior” in “Oh! You Pretty Things,” the original lyrics to “Velvet Goldmine” were a little too much, so he backed off and dressed everything up in euphemism and threw in the line about “panther princess” for plausible deniability and all that. But still, “Velvet Goldmine” is totally about having sex with dudes, which is why when Todd Haynes made his movie about glam rock, he used it for his title.
Velvet Goldmine is very much a movie about having sex with dudes. There's this locket or something with that gets passed down from Oscar Wilde to the Marc Bolan/Little Richard character (the movie has that kind of poetic approach to history), to the Iggy Pop character, to Christian Bale's journalist character. One reading of the movie could lead one to believe that it has some sort of mythic power of gay, but considering Todd Haynes' background in semiotics it could very well just be a signifier of fabulousness, and it is pretty fucking fabulous. Then again, so is glam rock.
Arising as it did in the early '70s, when the gay rights movement was making strides, and when world events had gotten upsetting enough that a move from weed to cocaine was necessary to keep spirits up (and the resultant cynicism, plasticity, glibness, and obsession with surface that resulted from that shift), glam rock both informed and was informed by popular culture. It was very much about posing, looking fabulous, acting incredibly fabulous, and doing a whole fucking goddamn hell of a lot of cocaine.
In very broad strokes, it started with Marc Bolan wearing glitter and a boa and making a couple mindblowing pop records, continued and got really really big when David Bowie saw Bolan's glitter and boas and raised him science-fiction aesthetics—teasing the idea of space alien as metaphor for sexual otherness—and epic theatrical scope, and eventually split into having a visual, presentational influence on disco and a musical influence on metal and punk (while metalheads and punks fucking hated each other in the 70s, they all liked Bowie). A little over five years after arriving in its massive decadent glory, glam rock died the death, with Marc Bolan's literal death in a car crash, and David Bowie quitting cocaine, moving on from rock 'n' roll, and becoming exclusively hetero again.
This last apparently sat badly with Todd Haynes, as Velvet Goldmine is very critical of the Bowie character, Brian Slade. He's a pretty enigma who charms his way into the hearts of his tragically enamored manager, his American wife, the Iggy Pop character Curt Wild, and gay teenagers (notably Christian Bale's character) who see him perform and listen to his music and go “That's me!” Eventually, he goes crazy on blow, fakes his own death, and then emerges in the 80s as an unrecognizable pop singer whose music supports a Ronald Reagan-inspired US president.
The story is structured, a la Citizen Kane and Eddie and the Cruisers (Velvet Goldmine pretty much exactly splits the difference in quality), around a journalist trying to piece together a story about an enigmatic figure, with a series of interview subjects. Haynes does a lot of jumping around in time, and doesn't do a lot of hand-holding with regards to which character is which, instead relying on visuals and moments to evoke emotional reactions, not a bad way to approach making a movie about glam rock.
It's a fun movie. Form and content are one, as it's long, decadent, gloriously self-indulgent (I remember thinking, the scene where “Bowie” first sees “Iggy” perform live and Ewan McGregor as “Iggy” is freaking out on drugs and jumps out of his leather pants and starts wagging his dick at the audience, “I can just see Todd Haynes being like, 'Damn, sorry, Ewan, the lighting was fucked up, man, you're gonna have to wave your dick around for a thirtieth take, I'm really sorry.'”) The performances are all pretty solid. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, in his breakout role as “Bowie” does a good job being pretty, inscrutable, and snotty. Ewan McGregor is awesome as “Iggy,” hiding his wounded sensitivity behind bluster, swagger, and drugs. Christian Bale is a little gnomic as the journalist, as he isn't really given much to do beyond being gay and British. Toni Collette is her usual awesome self as the former Mrs. “Bowie,” as is Eddie Izzard in a non-drag turn as the Evil White Guy In a Suit with whom “Bowie” signs and who encourages “Bowie” to fuck over everyone who got him where he is. But the most fun performances come early on, when the manager is telling Christian Bale about “Bowie” before he was a star, and there's this one scene where the manager and a bunch of middle-aged English homosexuals have a conversation in Polari with English subtitles. That scene is fucking great, and it's a sign that Todd Haynes knows his history.
Velvet Goldmine is not exactly short on similar signs (or signifiers either. Zing! Tip your waitress!) Just about everything in the movie is a reference to something. The Bowie character being named Brian “Slade” is a reference to the band Slade. His drummer has the same name as Marc Bolan's drummer. There are Stooges and Velvet Underground references all over the place (Ewan McGregor's character, though I called him the “Iggy” character earlier, has trace amounts of Lou Reed floating around as well). The “present day” stuff all takes place in 1984; Diamond Dogs, anyone?
And the soundtrack . . . oh, dear God the soundtrack. For some bizarre reason, David Bowie objected to being portrayed as a Machiavellian closet case and refused to grant permission for his songs to be used in the movie, though this actually helped the movie be more of a universal thing about glam rock, with Roxy Music and T. Rex covers standing in nicely. A couple different “supergroups” were assembled to perform those covers, one of which had Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead performing with just about everybody from Roxy Music except Bryan Ferry (though Thom does a fucking great Bryan Ferry impersonation; wonders never cease).
Despite the unfriendly Bowie euphemisms, Velvet Goldmine isn't an angry movie. Its attitude toward Bowie feels more like “you used to be all right . . . what happened?” (sorry, I can never mention Radiohead just once) and its attitude and Haynes' toward glam rock is kind of a wistful, nostalgic, “that shooting star sure was gorgeous” feeling. And of course, like any fleeting moment in the past, making a movie about it means everyone who sees the movie gets to share in that moment. Maybe some of them'll even buy some records. I know this movie is how I started listening to Roxy Music and T. Rex, and I fucking love them. And it's not like my love for Bowie's music got shook by Velvet Goldmine. It helped that the movie had no pretenses to being literal, naturalistic reportage, and it also helped that Bowie's real-life “conservative” 80s pop records were really fucking good (well, Scary Monsters and Let's Dance both were).
Velvet Goldmine may be kind of a mess, but it's a gorgeous mess. It's obsessed with surface, and scared that there's nothing underneath (okay, law of threes, now we're done with the Radiohead). And man oh man does it bring the gay. This movie brings the gay like a Jason Statham movie brings ownage. Dudes who want to fuck dudes go right ahead and fuck dudes. And in between fucking other dudes, they go full speed ahead on the fabulousness. Whether or not the gay is your thing, you gotta give it up to these cats, especially Ewan McGregor (whose penis should have won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar when he whips it out during “T.V. Eye,” just for the reaction shot of Jonathan Rhys Meyers going “Wow, I really want to suck that.”) Hell, it's not just Ewan McGregor, this whole movie's gayness has its dick out. And goddammit, Todd Haynes, you get a fucking round of applause for that. Good job, dude.
This post is dedicated to the passage last night of same-sex marriage in New York state. One love.