Velvet Goldmine, auteur Todd Haynes' marvelous, sexy, agitated tribute to glam rock celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. A decade later it's still quite the queer jewel. It remains one of the sparkliest bits in the filmographies of all involved.
When I first announced this Velvet celebration I dropped the argumentative note that I think it's a better film than Haynes's recent and more acclaimed picture I'm Not There. The latter has a bolder attention-grabbing actorly gambit (multiple performers for one role ... sort of) but the films are close spiritual siblings in many other ways. They're like aggressively eccentric visual historians who share the same pet topics: fluid persona, rock star egotism and cultural youthquakes. So why do I think Velvet is better?
Ten Reasons Why Velvet Goldmine Trumps I'm Not There
10 Christian Bale appears in both of these Todd Haynes extravaganzas. In only one of them does he masturbate to a fold out album cover and newspaper clippings.
09 Todd Haynes detractors point to his intellectualism as a fault. They say it renders his movies into theses. Mostly I say "what's wrong with that?" ... better to have something meaty to discuss than the alternative. And though I've often chalked this reaction up to lazy anti-intellectualism I see where they're coming from a bit with I'm Not There. Advantage Velvet Goldmine: It funnels its big ticket ideas through the painted lips of characters as unintellectual in nature as Mandy (Toni Collete --I kind of live for her "speeding up" monologue) as awkward as Arthur (Christian Bale) as silent as Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland) or as stoned as Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) or as smugly pontificating as Brian (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). This filter makes it less 'thinky' somehow.
08 Put another way: Velvet Goldmine lives in its body as well as its head. I'm Not There stays entirely cerebral even though rock n' roll is often located in the groin. The sex scene between Mandy & Brian in particular is incisively shot through distorting glass, incisively echoing their fluidity and even the confusion of who is/will be doing what to whom in the long run. And that's not to mention the crude guitar fellatio or the orgy sequence.
07 Unlike many rock and roll films, Goldmine's reach is generous. It focuses not just on a performer (as I'm Not There and most traditional rock pictures do) but it allows for further contextualization by adding an equally weighted audience surrogate (Arthur). We end up experiencing the larger cultural shifts through both performers and audiences. As a result it far exceeds the familiar rise and fall narrative of famous movie musicians and paints an unusual portrait of the death of a particular peculiar moment in both the large and intimate sense and from both directions (performer/voyeur) at once. You have to love it.
06 The flights of fancy in I'm Not There: whale, giraffes, balloons, etcetera... are all (presumably) esoterica. Only Dylan fans might understand them. Velvet Goldmine's most fanciful flourishes such as spaceships, magic amulets, barbie doll kisses and Oscar Wilde, are more accessible. I knew precious little about the glam rock era before watching the movie and I never felt like I wasn't in on any joke.
"Baby's On Fire" and "the curve of your lips rewrite history"
05 Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor are both way more believable as rock stars than anyone in I'm Not There... and more believeable as rock stars than many other people in many other rock movies. There are many people who think JRM is not much of an actor and to them I say 'ignore the other things you've seen him in an marvel at how perfectly he's cast and shot here and how well he embodies autoerotic androgynous callow celebrity.' He'll never top it but so what? If you have to peak early due it in service of a great film. As for McGregor... "TV Eye" has to be one of the most authentically live & dangerous rock numbers captured on film, doesn't it?
04 The Citizen Kane structure is endearing in its chutzpah. Not that I'm Not There doesn't have balls. But there's more film-appropriate youthful bravado in Goldmine. In short: it's more fun.
03 No sequence within Velvet Goldmine --not even the slightly mistifying Jack Fairy throughline -- is as headscratching or unsatisfying as one sixth of I'm Not There, the sixth being the Richard Gere section. Please note: This is not to take away from that lovely haunting musical bit "Goin' to Acapulco" even if it still makes no sense to me whatsoever.
02 Toni Collette does not appear in I'm Not There. Filmmakers take note: this is an automatic point deduction.
01 Velvet Goldmine gives the world's greatest costume designer Sandy Powell (absent from I'm Not There though she often works with Todd Haynes) a lot to do. When you give Sandy Powell room to play she returns to you entire playgrounds.
I know what you're saying I'm Not There lovers... You're saying...
...............okay okay I don't know what you're saying. I don't get you.
If you're on Team Dylan(s) speak up in the comments. Why were the reviews stronger? If you're on Team Goldmine rally 'round.
More Velvet Readings?
Try my Musical of the Month Pals
Movies Kick Ass "Citizen Slade"
Cinemavistaramascope "the curve of your lips..."
StinkyBits "an enthralling confounding fabulation"
Haiku'ed Viper Tetsu pays tribute in Japanese Meter
The classic Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) on December 6th. 'Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas' a little early.