“Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume.” So opens Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine (1998), and it sets the tone for two key elements of the glam rock movie: it’s not about David Bowie (fiction, see!) but it is, kind of (“To be played at maximum volume” is the instruction for how to listen to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; the title is also a Bowie song). It’s made up but in that sort of way that’s determined to reference as many things as possible, including Haynes’s previous work (a love scene is played out with dolls, echoing his 1988 short film about Karen Carpenter) and extending to its use of the Citizen Kane structure, in which several individuals are interviewed about one mysterious man.
The man in question is Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), whose disappearance from pop music is still a mystery in a greyish 1984 (the year of Orwell’s book and the Orwell-inspired apocalyptic vision of Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album). Journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is assigned the story, and as he interviews those associated with Slade we learn about his own personal connection with the world of glam. For a teenage boy growing up in suburbia, it was a window into his own sexuality, albeit one that leads to him getting kicked out of home; Haynes’s take on glam rock emphasises its theatricality, campness and queerness.
So who better to be the fairy godfather of glam rock than Oscar Wilde? Who, by the way, was left in the doorway of a Dublin home in 1854 by an alien spaceship. With a magical emerald pin that is passed down the generations and bestows a sort of genius on the beholder, the ability to be a pop icon.
As you might guess, this is not a strictly realist take on the world. But it’s a fitting mode for a story about myths and masks, a story that examines what it means to be a celebrity and constantly trying to find the cool-new-thing. Brian Slade is first attracted to Curt Wild (partly inspired by Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and played by a Kurt-Cobain-esque Ewan McGregor) because of his wild stage presence; he’s disheartened and jealous when he sees how the crowd response to him. “I wish I’d thought of it.” “You will, love,” his wife Mandy (Toni Colette) reassures him.
And he will, with his Maxwell Demon persona – a mask to put on, a name to hide behind. As both he and Wild grow in fame, the conversations between them and around them become more heightened and artificial; they quote Oscar Wilde to each other frequently. “The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history.” Cut to a kiss that scandalises the newspapers and sparks off Arthur’s sexual awakening.
Oh, Arthur. (And Bale before he went all weird and muscley!) Arthur is the audience stand-in, the allegedly ‘normal’ one looking in at all of these fascinating, glamorous people, which makes his brief encounter with one of them all the more exciting.
Looking at it now with the (cold, dead) eyes of a thirtysomething, I could pick it apart as being about wish-fulfillment, as being too messy and dreamy and ridiculous. Sentimental, perhaps, in its attempt to suggest that music offers us hope in even bleak, grey, corrupt times. But there are movies that worm their way into your heart when you are just at the right age, and this was one of my favourites as a teenager, for precisely all that messy dreamy ridiculousness, for its use of Oscar Wilde quotations and David Bowie references, for its delightful casting (Eddie Izzard as Slade’s ambitious manager remains a highlight) and pleasing cameos (Placebo!). For having an extraordinary soundtrack (a mix of original glam hits and covers) and vibrant wardrobe, and for a weary wistfulness, a gorgeous melancholy, about setting out “to change the world . . . ended up just changing ourselves.”
Perhaps it is fitting that a movie so steeped in nostalgia invites nostalgia about itself.