Jan 10 2012 3:15pm

Loving — Then Hating — the Alien: Velvet Goldmine

Raise your hand if you are often frustrated by historical films that use the excuse of ’artistic license’ to misrepresent, or outright change, the actual facts. Surely I can’t be the only person who balks at those decisions — the fabrication might create a moment of emotional impact within the movie itself, but it was based in a lie, and is less valuable because of it.

But sometimes history isn’t enough. Sometimes altering it can create something that encompasses an era, makes a case for the volatile emotions of a generation, shows the solid ties that lie between politics, social upheaval, music and... Oscar Wilde?

What started off as a plan to make something approaching a David Bowie biopic with a very artistic flare became the SFF near-historical glam deconstruction, Velvet Goldmine. Yes, it’s that one where Ewan McGregor and Christian Bale have sex. And if that’s all you know about it, you’re missing out on one of the more interesting commentaries on art, identity, and the strange transition between the opulent exploration of the 70s and the conservative oppression of the 80s to be found on film or anywhere else.

It’s true that Velvet Goldmine was originally intended to be something biopic-like (in the loosest sense) about David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust years and what follows, but Bowie wasn’t too keen on the project — understandable as the script was, at most, 40% historically accurate — and also didn’t want any of his music in it. Necessity reared its head and changes were made. Lots of them. Music was lifted from Bowie’s contemporaries and friends, covers of Iggy Pop and Roxy Music were recorded, and some new glam rock was produced, courtesy of Shudder to Think.

It turned out that ditching the biographical aspects only strengthened the film. The main character is a David Bowie analog: Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who creates the space age rock frontman in the form of the blue-haired jumpsuit-wearing Maxwell Demon. But here the film takes a turn from metaphor to reality — real life fans talk of the day that Bowie “killed” Ziggy Stardust on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon, announcing that it was the last concert he would do. But Brian Slade stages an actual assassination, making his fans think he has been murdered in front of them. When they find out it was all a stunt the backlash is brutal, and Slade backs away into the shadows.

We are meant to get a sense of wonder from these game-changers like Slade, Jack Fairy, and Curt Wilde (an Iggy Pop-Lou Reed-Kurt Cobain fusion, played with startlingly accurate stage histrionics by Ewan McGregor) who terrify the masses and shake up the world with their hedonistic “art for art’s sake” ideas, but we are also meant to understand that being these people inevitably leads to self-destruction. That becoming a cultural symbol — no matter how clever or beautiful you are — is not a state for a living, breathing being, and therefore impossible to sustain. It begins with Oscar Wilde (intimated to be an alien child left on the doorstep of some poor Irish couple), the first of this kind, dropped from the sky to share a brand new type of art with the world. Making connections between the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and the musician behind The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane feels like it should be a no-brainer, but the seamless blending of Wilde (non-)philosophy and Bowie-inspired performance art is a brilliant sort of revelation.

There is a deep sense of ennui embedded in Velvet Goldmine, an acknowledgement that something singular from those years of glam can never be recaptured. But unlike the rose-colored glasses that we often view the Flower Power generation through, the children of that early 70s revolution are not coated in the sugar of protesting and naive free love. These glitter-covered kids were never trying to change the world... only themselves, a theme echoed by Curt Wild at the film’s close. Even their messiahs could not carry on the tradition, wasted by a world that wanted rid of them.

It is the classic portrayal of glam culture, one that has a far deeper meaning than it is usually given credit for: the alien who does not belong among us, briefly worshipped and then barbarically cast aside in favor of other shiny things, disco fever and worldwide consumerism. It’s true of Ziggy Stardust and Dr. Frankenfurter, and the many musicians who embraced makeup and androgyny only to find that they would have to evolve or die just a few years down the road.

Commentary on the changes in society from the 70s to the 80s runs through the core narrative: Christian Bale’s Arthur Stuart is the character the story revolves around, an English reporter working in America in 1984, given the assignment to look into Maxwell Demon’s “death” for its 10th anniversary. Arthur would rather forget that time in his life and it’s hardly surprising: the 80s were not a time when the general population looked with understanding upon openly experimenting with drugs and bisexuality, and the freeing (and often horrific) act of exploring yourself so recklessly. He soldiers on, and his Citizen Kane-esque investigation leads him to big arena pop star Tommy Stone, who may — shockingly — be Slade’s new alter ego.

It’s an easy visual cue to spot for David Bowie fans: Stone is clearly a callback to Bowie’s “Serious Moonlight” persona in the 1980s, the era when all of his music was specifically packaged for the MTV mainstream masses. But here we see something far more insidious. Tommy Stone appears to be American, and vocally supports “President Reynolds,” clearly a Reagan substitute in this alternate history. While Bowie never openly supported a presidential candidate or made any outward turns toward Republican politics, Velvet Goldmine is striving for the broader historical stroke: conservative government and assembly line machined music. Dangerous art of a bygone era juxtaposed with the built-from-the-ground-up pop idol. While there was a destructive element to Slade’s glam persona, we can all see that Maxwell Demon was a true expression of himself and what he saw in the world, worth much more than the robotic, bleach-blonde doll that replaced him. And because of that, there is a genuine feeling of loss accompanying Arthur’s journey — he is left with very little to reassure him.

Nothing except a strange green pin found on the swaddling clothes of an alien infant in the 19th century.

Whether the source of Wilde’s powers or his inspiration, the hope we’re left with is tangible and the nostalgia is nothing to snicker at. That song that makes you sway when it comes up on the jukebox, radio, or shuffle is not just a few minutes of throwback to your strange formative years. It is power contained in a reminder: time you spent knowing that the world could change if only you could find the right song. It is art for art’s sake, but also for the sake of everyone who pointed and laughed at your ridiculous haircut and unfortunate shoes. Maxwell Demon may have been shot on stage, but while he lived you were never alone, and the whole world knew it. Velvet Goldmine is a love letter to that feeling of belonging that music creates in all of us.

“An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them.” So Wilde says, and so Velvet Goldmine tells us. But its resonance betrays the truth: perhaps that would be a more peaceful manner of creation, but who would ever want to live in that world?

Emily Asher-Perrin would like her life played at maximum volume. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

Theresa DeLucci
1. theresa_delucci
This was a great examination of one of my favorite movies back in the day. I loved the Oscar Wilde thread, the parade of goregous costumes and makeup, and the original music. It really is a much more interesting movie for not being a biopic.

I loved young Arthur in his awkward makeup and bad hair, on the fringes of glam fandom until he gets more personally involved with one of his rock idols. Toni Collette was fantastic as "Angela," too.

Time to listen to the soundtrack. On repeat. All day.
John Coulthart
2. John_Coulthart
Seems like I'm commenting on most of these posts this week…

This is a film I love indecently, and could blather at great length about all the involved and cleverly-coded references to glam and pre-glam music. One thing I especially like is how smartly it traces the influence of queer culture on British Pop, from Oscar Wilde through music hall drag acts (as portrayed by Bowie's mime teacher Lindsay Kemp), Little Richard (a gay artist, of course), the Mods, to the gay clubs where everyone is speaking Polari. As with Citizen Kane, it's more interesting because it doesn't model itself precisely on the Bowie story, that way there's more scope for invention and myth.

The mysterious jewel I always regard as being Bowie's "family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald" from the opening of Diamond Dogs. It can be read as a signifier of vital artistry (or the artistic personality) being passed from Wilde to Jack Fairy, stolen by Brian Slade and--crucially--owned at the end by Curt Wild not Tommy Stone. Why Arthur ends up with it is an odd question, and something I've never really worked out.
Bridget McGovern
3. BMcGovern
Agreed! I remember waiting outside for about 10 hours to get into a Village Voice preview screening of Velvet Goldmine back in the late 90s--that's how excited my friends and I were about it, at the time. It's definitely a film that benefits from multiple rewatches, and (as much as I love it) there are some elements that don't quite work on the whole, but as a rumination on the nature of pop stardom, youth culture, and identity politics, it's pure genius (and gorgeous, to boot :)
Emily Asher-Perrin
4. EmilyAP
@theresa_delucci - Agreed! I adore Toni Collette here, and the extent to which she managed to capture Angie Bowie's weird affectations, with her accent going in and out.

@John_Coulthart - You know, I think the answer of why Arthur got the jewel is in those last lines of voiceover. He says, "He called it a freedom. A freedom you could allow yourself... or not." I think that perhaps the jewel is a signifier, a call to creative arms. It allows you to give yourself the freedom to do something incredible. At first, Arthur says he doesn't want it, but Curt doesn't give him a choice. And at the end of the film, we still don't know what Arthur will choose to do with it, which is pretty powerful.
Ron Hogan
5. RonHogan
"his Citizen Kane-esque investigation"

The way Velvet Goldmine echoes Citizen Kane's structure, including some very blatant loving swipes, is one of my favorite things about the picture. That and the re-enactment with dolls.
John Coulthart
6. John_Coulthart
@EmilyAP: Yes, I've made the mistake in the past in regarding the jewel as a kind of "mojo pin" (to borrow a phrase from Jeff Buckley) whereas Bowie's "family badge" makes more sense: something for like-minded individuals who aren't necessarily artists.
7. SF
Nice article on a great film. Since I first saw it years ago, it always seemed to me to be one of the best filmic meditations on the way music feeds into our construction of identity in our teens and twenties. Some very powerful stuff in this film.

@RonHogan: I thnk the bit with the dolls is also a callback to Haynes' earlier "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," which was done entirely with dolls.
Ian Gazzotti
8. Atrus
I'll be the party pooper and say that I watched this movie expecting to love it but instead, for all its themes and visuals, the movie never connected for me. It felt in many ways like an unfinished work - a draft of what it could've been.

And it's unfortunate that the movie is associated to that 'sex scene', considering that on screen it lasts what, three seconds? It's only popular because of the joke the crew pulled on them.
Emily Asher-Perrin
9. EmilyAP
@RonHogan - Absolutely. There's probably an entire piece that needs doing on that alone. It's one aspect of the film that really makes you realize how much care went into the project overall; you don't just make a Citizen Cane homage for kicks.

@SF - Agreed. And thank you! :)

@Atrus - I can't help but wonder if maybe the style of cinematography or editing contributed to that disconnect? Unless you feel as though aspects of the story didn't work out well for you.

You have to admit, the joke that the crew played on them is pretty funny, though. ;)
Clémentine Girbal
10. C.G
Thank you for this article :) This movie as been in my top ten for more years than I dare to count, and I was the only one to know about it for the longest time (not anymore, since I showed it to everybody :)) I'm glad people love it too!
I agree the the structure makes it a movie that is more enjoyable when you see it several times, plus I saw it quite young the first time, with absolutly NO awarness of the things that were reference (I only started adoring wilde a few years later, as well as dicovering the different music and people referenced) And I'm kinda glad I got to to enjoy the movie as it's own thing, meaning that twenty odd viewings later, I'm still rediscovering it!
11. vardathemessage
This is a lovely insightful take on my favorite movie. Todd Haynes quotes a line from a review in the new Blu-ray commentary that really wraps it up for me, "Criticising this film for failing to capture Glam's documentary truth is like slagging The Wizard of Oz for misrepresenting Kansas." The lyrics to Eno's Needle in the Camel's Eye that play over the opening credits are apt too - "Those who know, don't let it show, they give you one long look and go oh oh oh". Those of us who know have been thrilled by this film for years. Nice to hear from the people who love it here.
12. Mary e
Uhhh....how many times have you watched this? Ewan has sex with jrm.

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