Looking Back At VELVET GOLDMINE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony may not know much about art, but he knows what he likes.
“The artist is the creator of beautiful things… All art is quite useless.” – Oscar Wilde, in the introduction to The Picture Of Dorian Gray.

The words of Oscar Wilde – a man who was wildly flamboyant, intriguingly creative, and who ended his days in squalor and poverty - may be ultimately true. They are perhaps impeccably true of his own creation, Dorian Gray, who sacrificed all notions of morality and consequence to the preservation of personal beauty while his work of art became ever more rancid and uncomfortable to look at.

But Wilde’s doctrine of art for art’s sake contains a trap into which his fans subsequently fell. His theory was that art had no meaning but beauty, and so should only be appreciated FOR its beauty, not plumbed for meaning, points of emotional resonance, or anything quite so difficult.

And yet, people have been investigating Wilde’s work ever since for its meanings, themes, points of influence on the way we see the world, and so on – taking it seriously, in other words, rather than merely enjoying it for its beauty.

But we haven’t just plucked the Oscar Wilde quote out of thin air as a way of discussing Velvet Goldmine, the 1998 musical drama by Todd Haynes.

Wilde runs through the film like a pulse, from teenagers, including central figure and one-day journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) being taught his words at school as he struggles to come to terms with his own homosexuality, to Wilde being credited – not without reason – as the inspiration for the whole idea of glam rock, which is the world in which the movie takes place.

You can see the parallels between Wilde’s life and philosophy and the glam rock era. Glam rock was an evolution of judgement-free hippie free love and peace, through a Little Richard rock and roll sensibility, and with added drag culture style and pomp. It was the art of the self and the art of music combined and arguably perfected, and – while it all could be enjoyed for its own sake – it was a thing of sheer beauty.

Velvet Goldmine tells a story that weaves all this together, but adds a vaguely… odd… through-line that shows the collapse of the edifice when it went beyond pure artistic entertainment and took itself too seriously. You could argue that that’s been a familiar story in post-war musical history – when it’s all about the music and the performance, bands are at their peak. When they start to believe in their own legend – when, to go back to Wilde, they strive to mean something or to matter beyond the beauty of the art – they’re doomed.

In particular, Velvet Goldmine takes a couple of figures drawn with absolutely zero subtlety from real life and uses them as its character-models. Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland) does little in the film but is an inspirational presence – for which read Little Richard. The central character, Brian Slade (a gorgeously androgynous Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is Bowie in all but name. Curt Wild - no ‘e’ - (Ewan McGregor in a moderately dubious accent) is a blending of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Mandy Slade, Brian’s first wife and introduction to performing, played by the always exceptional Toni Collette, is based at least loosely on David Bowie’s first wife, Angela.

So the resonances with reality are heavy in this movie. To give you an idea quite HOW heavy, Brian Slade has an ‘alien’ alter ego, Maxwell Demon, who has a band called Venus in Furs. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars are here in all but name and musical ability. And the story is a strong-ish parallel of the relationships and interactions between Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop in the Seventies. It’s a tale of excess, joyous bisexual pleasure-go-rounds, and a culture of anything goes, as long as it’s stylish. It’s fictionalised, of course, not least in the merging of Reed and Pop into the single figure of Wild, but that’s the essential core of its revolving action.

Where the odd-ish element comes in is in the framing structure of the whole thing.

Arthur Stuart was a fan of both Slade and Wild in the mid-Seventies, with a combination of identification and adoration helping him through his teenage years. He eventually had to leave home after being discovered by his parents, furiously masturbating over pictures of Slade (so there’s a scene to add to your mental library, Christian Bale fans!). And he was there in the audience the night Brian Slade’s career came to a staggering end.

Again inspired by the Bowie reality, Slade’s persona, Maxwell Demon fed the media with stories of his growing paranoia and certainty he’d be assassinated. But that night, Demon supposedly did it for real – gunman, shots, death while at the peak of his artistic beauty, the whole deal.

When the whole thing was discovered to be a hoax, though, the fans ignored Oscar Wilde (as fans seem determined to do throughout history!). They turned on Slade and sank his career, leaving him no option but to disappear entirely from public life. “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” – to quote Johnny Rotten, the artistic megastar of punk, the next phase of transatlantic musical expression.

Ten years later, as a middlingly successful journalist, Arthur is sent to find out the truth – Whatever happened to Brian Slade? – and so begins tracking down all the people who knew him at various stages of his career, their interviews beginning the film’s exploration of the time and themes of their experience with him.

As a narrative technique, it works quite well, though as time goes on you catch yourself falling into Oscar Wilde’s trap, looking with increasing desperation for the POINT of the whole thing, when the point is you’re not supposed to look for meaning in art. You’re just meant to enjoy it.

That’s all well and good, but especially in a movie made twenty years after the height of glam rock, and in a sense trumpeting how amazing it was, you could argue that some point has to be there, or it’s just a couple of hours of extraordinarily pretty people faffing about. Artistically.

And you’d be within your rights to conclude that ultimately, that’s what Velvet Goldmine amounts to.

Certainly, Bowie himself was not especially a fan. Haynes approached Bowie for the right to use his catalogue of music for the film, and Bowie refused, claiming – whether genuinely or diplomatically – that he intended to make his own film about the period, and wanted to use his music in that project. And having watched it, his verdict was that only the gay scenes were any good.

That’s a little harsh, but if anyone’s ALLOWED to be harsh about this movie, it’s probably David Bowie.

What you get here is a sense of the art and the artists of an era, who were desperate to be themselves out loud in a world that had no particular routes to allow that independence. They made their own, and created similar routes to both personal and sexual self-expression for young kids coming up everywhere on both sides of the Atlantic.

Into the bargain, you DO get some exceptionally attractive people faffing about and strutting around in Lycra, feathers, make-up and hair that never stops, and in particular Jonathan Rhys Meyers, despite never really having a fully-fledged character underneath all the pretence, is astonishing to look at for the duration of the movie. When he looks sideways sometimes, you do a double-take, convinced that Scarlett Johansson has been CGI’d into the movie. Which, if you happen to embrace your Inner Bisexual like most of the main characters here, is no bad thing either.

That it ultimately delivers the picture of a creative process eventually taking itself too seriously and imploding into mess, pain, disaster, and disappearance feels oddly right for the period, albeit a slightly frustrating watch. And the ending (which of course we’re not going to spoil for you) leans towards the absurdity of no-one knowing Clark Kent is Superman because he has glasses on.

All the cast deliver on the promise of their parts though, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Brian Slade the most opaque of the lot, because of his need to be a mystery that powers us through the film. And both he and Ewan McGregor’s Wild are at their most irritating when spouting Wildean doctrine about the power of art for art’s sake to wipe away unfortunate or downright idiotic decisions.

One performance we haven’t mentioned yet needs to be recognised, though, because it’s positively hypnotic. Eddie Izzard absolutely shines in this movie as Slade’s manager, the equally absurdly named Jerry Devine. With a combination of steely-eyed certainty and slick managerial slime, she feels so intuitively ‘in’ this role, her performance is a jewel in among all the purple velvet and Spandex.

Beyond that, there’s something dogged about the movie’s use of glam standards, like T. Rex’s 20th Century Boy played by Placebo, Virginia Plain, by Bryan Ferry, and many more, including a song based on the Ziggy Stardust track, Velvet Goldmine – which presumably would actually have BEEN Velvet Goldmine had Bowie given his permission to use his catalogue. The music use even verges on the desperate at times, nailing the glam rock era into place, whether or not the movie itself has space for the tunes in between its storytelling.

Ultimately, what Velvet Goldmine gives us is a messy, chaotic, sonically explosive, slightly patchy picture of an era of art, excess, rampant sexuality in the face of an older generation’s disapproval, and a wildly far-fetched hook-line of fans taking art too seriously – and occasionally, artists taking it too seriously themselves.

It’s pretty, it’s sumptuous and it paints a picture that will keep you entertained at least two-thirds of the way through its run-time. That it fizzles out into sadness and navel-gazing towards the end is both satirical (whether intentionally or not), and the sign of a film that begins to take ITSELF too seriously, and can’t really resolve everything it’s shown us into a grand overall lesson.

Because that’s not what art is about.

At least according to Oscar Wilde.

Watch Velvet Goldmine today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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