"Although what you're about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume."
And with that, you're immediately welcomed into the world of Velvet Goldmine, a film like no other that's ever been made. I know how odd it is to say that when the film borrows its structure, and many of its setups from Citizen Kane, but to say it's anything but a true original would be to do it a disservice. Ostensibly, the film is about Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) a David Bowie-esque glam rocker of the 1970s, and how he disappeared from the public view after faking his own death. But in actuality, it's about Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a British reporter working for a New York newspaper in 1984, who's been given an assignment to write about the 10th anniversary of Slade's phony assassination.
Arthur was coming of age at the same time that Slade's career began to skyrocket, and the story is very close to his life. It's hard to tell for sure if he was actually at all of the events that are talked about in the film, or if he's just imagining himself there, but either way, he's reliving his own adolescence as much as he's finding out the story behind Brian Slade.
The first person he goes to get information from is Cecil (Michael Feast), Slade's first manager. He tells Arthur how he first met Brian and his wife Mandy (Toni Collette) and came to be his representation. To say that Cecil mismanaged Slade is a bit of an understatement, but much like Bowie's early days, no one really knew what to make of him or how to showcase him, so he's stuck playing rock festivals where he's booed off the stage.
At one festival however, he's introduced to Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor, in a truly go-for-broke performance) a hybrid of Iggy Pop & Lou Reed. Slade becomes obsessed with the rocker who truly doesn't give a shit what people think of him, and reinvents himself as a glam rocker named Maxwell Demon. At this point, he catches the attention of a much bigger agent, Jerry Devine (Eddie Izzard, brilliant as always) who promises to make Brian a superstar, and so Brian turns his back on Cecil, ending his involvement in the tale.
Arthur's quest to find out more of the story takes him next to Mandy Slade, Brian's ex-wife, who gives Arthur more of the story than Cecil did. Brian became a superstar and an icon to the outcasts of society, much like Arthur himself was in his youth. Brian's superstardom puts him on the path to self-destruction though, and much of that comes as a result of his convincing Jerry to also sign Curt Wild to a record deal. The two begin a torrid, passionate affair that gets in the way of creating any sort of meaningful music, and seems as if its going to destroy all of their careers. Arthur's quest to find out what happened to Brian Slade after he faked his own death eventually leads him to Wild, who may or may not know the truth of where Slade is now.
The film has unadulterated style to spare. It's one of the most stylized films ever made, and it all works to create a film experience like no other. Writer/director Todd Haynes had wanted to use some of Bowie's music in the film, but when Bowie got wind of the film being about him, he forced them to change the script and withheld his music. I don't know how much that helped though, as the film is obviously influenced by the period in music that Bowie himself created and dominated. I certainly don't think it casts him in a bad light, and did nothing to change my perception of Bowie, nor should it have. One of the best scenes in the film involves Brian and Curt confessing their true feelings for one another as Barbie dolls being played with by two young girls, an homage to Haynes' Karen Carpenter biopic Superstar which I reviewed several weeks ago.
Sandy Powell was nominated for an Oscar for her costume design here, and the fact that she lost to herself for Shakespeare in Love softens the blow a bit, but her costumes are incredible. The stage costumes are amazing, but her work on the smaller characters and extras is equally great. The costumes that the press wear when photographing Slade for the first time at his estate are gorgeous. Andrew Munro's art direction is also great, as is the cinematography by Maryse Alberti. The film has a look all its own and the contrast between the drab, dull, gray eighties and the vibrant, glittery seventies is probably my favorite thing about the film. It makes the film feel more like a memory because everything in the past has so much more life to it than the present, and that's sort of the way we tend to romanticize our past.
The performances are great. Christian Bale has always been a great actor, but watching him change his entire body language and gait is amazing. How he goes from being an introvert, to finding his place in the world, and then retreating back in the present shows what a truly gifted physical actor he is. Ewan McGregor is fantastic, as always, diving into his role with reckless abandon. His scene in the recording studio where he's too fucked up to sing in pitch and on cue is a great moment in a great performance. Toni Collette is great too, playing a shrill, annoying woman during Cecil's story, and then settling into a more fully realized character when she takes over telling the story. It's a great contrast, and one that proves she is one of the most underrated actresses working today.
As for Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, he's probably the weakest link in the cast. He's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, he definitely has a challenging role, but he's not a charismatic actor. He relies too much on his good looks to do the acting for him, and while he's great in the big, flashy moments, he's lost to the much better actors around him in the quiet moments. It's not an easy task he has, trying to play David Bowie without playing David Bowie, but he's not quite up to it. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the soundtrack, which is fantastic! Thom Yorke & Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead teamed up with David Gray to record under the fake band name from the film The Venus in Furs, but it also features music by Brian Eno, Pulp, Grant Lee Buffalo, Roxy Music, Placebo & even Lou Reed. It's an unbelievable soundtrack, one that continues to be on heavy rotation in my car.
Lionsgate recently acquired a good portion of Miramax's catalog, and has been releasing it on blu-ray in some pretty immaculate editions. This transfer is no exception, looking better than I've ever seen it. You'll want to toss out your old, non-anamorphic dvd from the late 90s the minute you see this new restoration. There's also a commentary with Haynes and producer Christine Vachon that I'm looking forward to listening to. You don't have to be a glam rock fan to like the film, it's an easy film to admire. However, it's going to be tough to love the film if you don't love the era the film is set in. For those of us who are fans of the time and the music, it's like manna from heaven. But don't avoid seeing the film if you're not, I think you'll be surprised how good the film is. If nothing else, it's your chance to see Batman and Obi-Wan Kenobi have sex on a rooftop, and who doesn't want to see that?