Before there was Moonlight, before there was Carol, there was Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’s fearlessly fantastic and brazenly queer re-imagining of the history of glam rock. This is the cinematic wonder that dared to ponder what if Oscar Wilde was not only the forefather of the gender-bending music form, but also an alien gifted to us from another planet to bring glamor, beauty, and decadence? What if the story of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed’s rise to stardom were reimagined as a heady gay romance, snarled with broken hearts, breathtaking musical numbers, and an assassination hoax, and all that unfolded in the non-linear structure plucked from Citizen Kane? “It’s all too much,” you can imagine the pearl-clutchers screaming. But in 1998, Velvet Goldmine gave us glam rock gods glittering, glorious, vulnerable and broken.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as Brian Slade, a Bowie stand-in/androgynous bisexual rock star who claws his way to fame and fortune by stepping on the necks of his fey manager, his American party-girl wife (the ageless Toni Collette), and his grungy lover Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor playing a menacing and yet unnervingly sexy mashup of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop). Once Slade and Wild were on top of the world, the Tracy and Hepburn of queer culture. Yet theirs became a story lost in a tangle of cutting tabloid headlines of addiction, meltdowns, and self-sabotage. But in a grim 1984 where rock is manufactured and grimly safe, music journalist Arthur Stuart (a tender Christian Bale) digs back into the past—his and theirs—to make sense of the rise of Brian Slade, Curt Wild, and the sexual freedom glam rock promised, and how it all fell to pieces among the fallen feathers of a career-killing rock show.
This is Meyers’ best work, turning his natural beauty and air of arrogance into spell that lures us in and breaks our hearts. Haynes paints Meyers’ soft yet strong features in pinks and purples, and the actor surrenders his slim pale flesh to play this ambitious musician to the fullest. As the wispy long-haired boy in a dress, he’s wounded and rough. But as Brian Slade creates his extraterrestrial alter-ego
Ziggy Stardust Maxwell Demon, Meyers comes alive, becoming something divine, demented and electrifying. Performing songs by Shudder To Think and The Venus In Furs, Meyers does a mean lipsync that’d make RuPaul proud, slaying with face, swagger and towering purple platform boots. He’s every bit the glam rock fantasy. So pretty and untouchable we can’t help but follow the glitter like breadcrumbs down the trail to see where he went, and along the way discover the damage he wrought.
As Stuart interviews scorched business associates and spurned lovers of Slade, a dazzling legend unfolds that’s punctured by the pain of such petty things as human feelings. The shine of Maxwell Demons is brilliant. The truth of Brian Slade is dark and cruel. But amid these flashbacks to backstage blowjobs, heady honeymoons, and tearful breakups, Velvet Goldmine reveals its true hero to be the mild-mannered Stuart, a wide-eyed gay teen who looked to Slade and Wild as inspiration and formative queer crush. Looking back not only means discovering the dirty secrets of his heroes, but also plumbing the wound of his first love.
All of the performances in this film are abject magic. Always the powerhouse, Collette transforms from a golden girl haloed in curls and dripping in jewelry to a bitter ex-wife, haloed in the cigarette smoke and dripping with bitterness. Eddie Izzard pops by to play a big talking manager with a cigar-chomping flare. McGregor brings a frightening ferocity to the no-fucks given stage persona of Curt Wild, who flips the bird as easily as he flashes his dick and sets the stage literally on fire.
But McGregor offers tenderness too, finding the cracks of pathos that played in Reed’s music. Wild and Slade become lusty glam rock love birds, sharing an overwhelming and explosive chemistry as they live out the rock n’ roll fantasy with a brazenly gay spin. Looking back, it feels like fan fiction that defied the odds to become a big beautiful movie moment that left its audience quivering in awe. I remember seeing Velvet Goldmine for the first time and fearing I should hide it, lest it be snatched away from me. Sexuality this alive and unafraid seemed illicit and dangerous. It sparked in me something I didn’t know was there, and definitely didn’t know what to do with. And that’s exactly the point.
Bale’s role is less showy. Despite Stuart’s earnest love of glam rock, he never gets the full genderfuck fantasy, burning out at crudely dyed blue hair with a bit of eye-makeup and one gawdy doorknocker earring. But he is our audience surrogate, reaching for the stars, though cruelly stuck on the ground. The big story is Slade’s, but the heart of Velvet Goldmine is Stuart’s coming-out tale, which was sparked by Maxwell Demon and concludes with a extraterrestrial blessed tryst with Wild. Playing a bashful teen, Bale sets our hearts alight as he sneaks out of his conservative middle-class home wearing a femme top ornamented with glitter and shiny baubles. His smile lights up with freedom and the thrill of daring to stand out. And so Haynes gives us the fantasy and the reality, urging each and every viewer to allow themselves the same freedom to be who they are.
I could go on and on about the intoxicating visuals. Toni Collette’s curves wriggling ruthlessly in a translucent silver dress. Maxwell Demon in his pastel pink wig, stomping about with a cigarette holder longer than a corvette. McGregor as a soot-covered satyr with a wicked wink and a volatile smile. Or the literal circus of Slade responding to a small army of chuckling suits with a series of Oscar Wilde nonsequitors, dressed like a gilded ringmaster. And sex scenes passionate, hazy, and earnest. Haynes never shying away from any which way his bisexual heroes swing, never shaming them their sexual desires. And all of this enveloped in a soundtrack of smoke, seduction, and exhilaration. How could anyone not swoon?
Weaving together the influences of Wilde, Bowie, Reed, and Pop, the daring writer/director created a film that played less like the straightforward biopic it might have been and more like the dream we wish was real. Everything is either glitter or grunge, but nothing is boring. This is a story of inspiration, lust, fantasy, and waking up from the dream. And oh my, the waking up is brutal. But Haynes makes the dream so sweet, you can’t help but return again and again to crushing glamor and gorgeousness of Velvet Goldmine.
Velvet Goldmine is available on Amazon Prime.
Kristy Puchko could watch this movie on a loop for years.