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Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998)


    Even if it might go farther into detailing its iconic hero’s dour fall from grace than benefits it, Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes' fantasia of glam rock excess, is ambitious to a fault, and that's usually better than not being ambitious enough. Working slightly against it, it's got an elliptical approach that's initially emotionally disorienting, a plot structure that’s been a bit too audaciously borrowed from Citizen Kane, of all things, and a rather vacant performance at the center of it all. Haynes manages to make the movie work though, since everything is swirling around a potent message about the way that we're able to extract what we need from pop music in order to better ourselves, even if that pop music itself is rather hollow at its core. The key exchange of dialogue, delivered near the end, begins, “We set out to change the world… ended up just changing ourselves.” The response is “What’s wrong with that?” There’s a cynical reply offered up to that response, but it’s not clear that the movie buys into it. It seems to argue instead that the value of all the razzle-dazzle rests in the audience, not in the pretensions of the artist, and that’s a significant shift from the power placement of most musical biopics. That the audience's empowerment of the artist allows him to live out his fantasy only seems to be a fortunate side effect of the presentation of art in this context.


    Christian Bale, who gives the audience a surrogate among the larger than life figures that dominate Velvet Goldmine, plays a reporter on the trail of the elusive, David Bowie-like Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who has vanished from public view after faking his assassination in an apparent combination of publicity stunt and act of desperation. Bale’s character isn’t the dominant force in the movie, however. Slade’s story becomes one told by a dozen tellers, adding to the impression that as a public figure he is as others see him. A disembodied voiceover narrator, media wags, Bale’s reporter, and the people that most closely knew him all take turns filling in their parts of the story. With this treatment, the celebrity becomes an amalgamation bigger than the person in question ever could be, even when he’s Brian Slade. Because Haynes raises that awareness in the film, Slade’s opacity becomes less troublesome. In the stead of a strong personality at its center, Velvet Goldmine instead offers a lot of terrific musical sequences and a parade of gaudy visuals, but when compared to the many biographical films insist they know everything there is to know about their unknowable subjects, such diversions are more than welcome.



* * * 1/2  


Jeremy Heilman