Todd Haynes, the immensely gifted filmmaker who made Poison (1991) and Safe (1995), delivers a whirling dervish of sound and vision with Velvet Goldmine, his expressionistic re-imagining of the brief heyday of glam rock in early 1970s London.
In Velvet Goldmine, the scene is propelled by a new strain of British dandies, who Haynes envisions as the direct aesthetic descendants of Oscar Wilde. Adopting an extreme fin de siecle pose, these social provocateurs trumpet glamour and artifice along with rabid self-mythologizing and cross-gender experimentation. Oh yes, they also make music.
The most successful is androgynous enigma Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), whose talent isn't limited to category-defying music. Brian Slade can spin controversy into gold. His off-stage antics and notoriety only fuel interest in his theatrical performances, in which he adopts the persona of a space oddity alter-ego.
While married to an equally flamboyant Mandy Slade (Toni Collette), the openly bisexual Brian pursues Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), an American wild child musician whose personal recklessness and innate raw power are funneled into fearsome, no-holds-barred concerts. And floating above everything, like glam's benevolent archangel and queer guiding light, is Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland).
Haynes structures the film as a Citizen Kane-like inquiry. British journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), living in glum 1984 New York, is assigned a what-ever-happened-to piece on Brian Slade. But the twist is that the teenaged Arthur was there, immersed in the thriving scene and desperately trying to construct his own persona from the glittering shards of glam.
Arthur brings a dual sensibility to Velvet Goldmine: He's a jaded and cynical investigator ruthlessly analyzing the reflected glory of a fleeting moment, and a devoted, besotted fan who finds his purest means of self-expression through glam's paradoxical compulsion to both conceal and reveal. At its best moments, glam simultaneously engages the intellect and touches the exposed nerves of emotion.
With Velvet Goldmine -- an intoxicating swirl of music and images -- Todd Haynes captures the heady experience of glam as a blaze of youthful insouciance and a hedonistic blur.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].