“Histories, like ancient ruins, are the fictions of empire. While everything forgotten hangs in dark dreams of the past, ever threatening to return.” – Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine
When Velvet Goldmine was originally released in 1998 it confused and frustrated a lot of critics who were turned off by its uninhibited style, hyper editing, abundant close-ups and nonlinear narrative structure. They also bemoaned the film’s playful take on musicals and biopics. This glam infused Citizen Kane homage didn’t appeal to a 1990s audience hooked on grunge rock. Ticket sales plummeted as many critics and the general public turned their backs on Velvet Goldmine but I embraced Haynes’s film.
I became familiar with Haynes’s work in the early 1990s after seeing Poison (1991) on video followed by Safe (1995) during its initial theatrical release. Both films mesmerized me but Velvet Goldmine turned me into a lifelong Todd Haynes fan. As someone who came of age in the seventies and later bummed around in various bands as a keyboardist during the eighties while struggling to find work as a music journalist, I immediately formed a deep kinship with the film’s main protagonist, Arthur (Christian Bale). Like Arthur, I went down the rock ‘n’ roll rabbit hole and managed to come out the other side but I’m also a little worse for wear. An unrestricted look deep inside the bowels of the music industry took a lot of the sparkle off the blinding light of celebrity. Seeing Arthur transform from a spotty, awkward adolescent kid seduced by the power of music into a jaded adult trying to sort out his past is all too familiar to me and Bale makes his character’s journey a convincing one.
“Meaning is not in things but in between them.” – Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine
I also appreciate the way the director captured the downright dirty and dangerous side of rock ‘n’ roll. As a gay artist, Haynes knows what’s it’s like to be a real outsider and he understands the appeal of beautiful boys who are willing to bare all on stage while they exploit our deepest desires and fears. Unlike Cameron Crowe’s terribly hackneyed Almost Famous (2000), which supposedly offered viewers an “insiders” look at the life of a young “rock journalist” but is completely devoid of passion, Haynes’s film gives us a journalist’s down ‘n’ dirty romanticized fantasy populated by the shadows of seventies pop idols like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Marc Bolan and Bryan Ferry that’s much more imaginative and heartfelt than Crowe’s incredibly benign and dreadfully dull creation.
Velvet Goldmine works because all the talented performers involved (Christian Bale, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ewan McGregor, Toni Collette, Eddie Izzard, Micko Westmoreland, Etc.) fully embrace the glamorous world they’re inhabiting and give 100% to their roles. And Haynes’s kinetic directing style gives the film genuine energy that should be a prerequisite when you’re making a film about the power of music.
Naturally critics loved Crowe’s Almost Famous, which has currently earned a whopping 88% of “like” votes on Rotten Tomatoes while Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine languishes at a mere 55%. It’s a sad reminder of how conservative and conventional film criticism was 10 years ago. Thankfully the predictability of film criticism seems to be slowly changing and that’s partially due to the onslaught of film blogs and film sites that are willing to champion lesser seen or forgotten movies that are often overlooked by mainstream critics. And speaking of Velvet Goldmine and alternative film sites …
I recently had the opportunity to write a little tribute to Velvet Goldmine for Fandor. Fandor is an online movie service devoted to independent films where you can watch award-winning titles, festival favorites, and international gems. If you have eclectic film tastes and are looking for an alternative to Netflix I highly recommend giving Fandor a look. Fandor also publishes articles and news features about the films they program on their Keyframe blog.
Earlier this month, the editors of Fandor asked a group of writers to contribute a brief piece about a film that portrays a “vanishing way of life” so I decided to share some thoughts about Velvet Goldmine. It might seem like an odd choice and I suppose it was but I had just seen the film again recently so it was fresh in my mind and I wanted an excuse to write about it. Hopefully I’ll find the time to write a longer piece about the film someday since there’s much more I’d like to say about Velvet Goldmine but here’s a little snippet from my Fandor contribution:
“Todd Haynes‘ Velvet Goldmine is a love letter to a rock ‘n’ roll past that is often more fiction than fact, because the history of rock simply can’t be written. It’s told in tall tales exchanged in smoky bars where the drinks are poured generously and the music is so loud that you can’t hear what anyone is actually saying. Haynes knows this but he also wants us to believe that rock ‘n’ roll once had the power to change the world, or at the very least, it could transform the inner world of one teenage boy.”
You’ll find my full piece along with the others at the Fandor.com site: – Last Picture Shows: Essential Films About Vanishing Ways of Life
The fictional character Jack Fairy sings one of my favorite Roxy Music songs (“2HB”) in Velvet Goldmine