Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Musical of the Month: Velvet Goldmine

It's Tuesday Top Ten AND November's musical of the month. When you overplan it's best to kill two birds with one stone. (Guess who overplans?)

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.

"It's a shameful fithy thing you're doing!"

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.

"It's funny how people look when they're walking out the door"

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

Next Musical
The classic Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) on December 6th. 'Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas' a little early.


Anonymous said...

What's your beef with JRM? He's a fantastic actor. Did you see Matchpoint? Elvis? The Tudors? A Lion in Winter?


i don't have a beef with him at all. In fact, i think i just totally praised the performance.

Anonymous said...

You did. But said he'll never top it and have made other remarks before. Sorry, I just think his talent warrants a bit more respect.

Notas Sobre Creación Cultural e Imaginarios Sociales said...

After rewatching this film I began to wonder how many real rock & roll movies exist out there that embrace entire subcultures. Regarding this,what did you think of "24 Hour Party People"?
Oh and I slightly favor "I'm Not There" if only for Blanchett.

Dave said...

Nat seemed to be commenting more on how JRM is generally percieved rather than how he himself views the actor. And there's nothing wrong with having a favourite performance from an actor.

This isn't really relevant, but I'll say it anyhow: I'm going to be doing an essay on Todd Haynes that focuses on VG and I'm Not There (and Far From Heaven). Which basically means that this blog-a-thon is about a week too early for me, as VG is currently somewhere in the British postal system winging its way to me. (But right now I must say I prefer I'm Not There. *runs*)

But I like your Toni Collette rule. It's like the inverse of the Danny Huston rule.


dave --- omg. danny huston. What is THAT about?
seriously. does he fly every casting director to luxury vacations every christmas?

and re: toni collette. velvet goldmine always reminds me how game she is. I mean, accents, wild character shifts, unconcerned with her appearance, nudity, you name it: she'll do it. Plus she can sing and dance and hollywood just doesn't use her like they should. (not that they don't cast her but still...)

jose -- i haven't seen 24 hour party people.

oh and anon -- i have not scene Elvis or his version of Lion in Winter. I did like him in Match Point but I don't think he's very good in The Tudors. so he's hit and miss with me.

Anonymous said...

I'm outnumbered but I found Blanchett grating and unconvincing. Of course she's so great in other work). I'm Not There was really interesting but VG was a sheer over-the-top joy to watch. Agree about Collete -- game is totally the word for her. That, and talented.

Anonymous said...

I'm not done my piece on VG vs I'm Not There, but the gist of it is that I'm Not There is better. It's more ambitious and realizes more of it's ambitions (not the same thing). It's more moving. It's a better film-film; there's not a moment that doesn't reflect or refract on another. Now, there's no denying it garnered more attention due to the stunt casting, but it's got a lot more on it's mind then glam rock posing (low blow).

Guy Lodge said...

What an odd coincidence that I'm Not There should crop up in both our blogs today -- I'm currently under fire from commenters for including it in my list of Top 10 biopics at InContention.

I dearly love Velvet Goldmine too -- I refuse to take sides here!

Anonymous said...

Oh, and a film with Toni Collette gets bonus points even though she played second fiddle to Nia Vardalos once but a film with a Julianne Moore cameo gets nothing? Nathaniel, the redhead remembers these things.

Joshua said...

What's the Danny Huston rule?

Chris Na Taraja said...

I have to go with Goldmine, and I think the Toni Collete thing is the strongest arguement.


joshua as dave said it's the inverse. if Danny Huston appears you have to subtract points ;)

Joshua said...

Wow, I really should've been able to pick that up. I blame it on my kneejerk reaction.

I totally love Danny Huston.

Anonymous said...

Any points removed from I'm Not There for not having Toni Collete should be added back because I'm not There does have Julianne Moore!

Glenn said...

I think the role in Velvet Goldmine is the only role JRM should have ever taken. It's clearly the perfect role for him and he's ace in it, but everything else from him is quite terrible (I can stand him in Match Point if for no other reason than the movie itself is just so good).

He was recently in a movie called Children of the Silk Road (or Children of Huang Shi) and there's an early scene he shares with David Wenham, which just shows how incredibly miscast Meyers was and how Wenham being cast in the lead role would have substantially improved the film.

But back to Velvet Goldmine. I do like it more than I'm Not There, but I think the two are Haynes' weakest efforts (and by "weakest" I mean, they're better than anything most directors will ever come up with, but they're not the all-out masterpieces that [safe] and Far From Heaven) are. In fact, I think Haynes' best biopic work is Superstar. It helps that I prefer the music in that one to both glam rock and whatever the hell it is Bob Dylan cranks out and gets outlandish praise for.

That was one thing, I think, that lead to I'm Not There's critical reception. If it were an equally esoteric and insider look at, say, Cheryl Tweedy the critics wouldn't have blinked twice about it, but because it's Bob Dylan - and hence, respectable - then they went feverish about it (or, some did anyway). I know not all critics were like that, but I am positive a small smattering of them were. That and I'm Not There is so overtly queer and we all know major film critics' (just like the Academy, actually) steer away from things that embrace queerness with a locked fist.

Unless, of course, we're talking about the costume design category. I still love that Sandy Powell got an Oscar nod for this, don't you? That costume branch really knows how to throw a curve ball or two.

James Hansen said...

Admittedly, I have only seen VG once and it was quite a long while ago. That said, I am nuts about IM NOT THERE. What can I say? I like structuralist/dialectical epics that present multiple theses about single characters (hmm...sounds like I think CHE is this year's IM NOT THERE...except in a totally different way...) What it does lack, however, is the same authenticity found in Haynes' earlier films. Although it is bright, crisp, bold, and beautiful (whoa, adjectives!), it feels a little more disconnected than VG, POISON, or SAFE (his best film, cough cough.)

So...yeah...I side with IM NOT THERE at the moment, but can certainly see why people like VG more and will gladly change my mind if/when I have VG fresher in my mind.

James Hansen said...

Full disclosure amid Glenn's provocative comment... I do love Bob Dylan's music (i.e. voice, mood, attitude...EVERYTHING) but love the film for totally different reasons that have very little to do with the music or even the Dylan persona(s) for that matter.

I agree that some small spattering critics loved it because they love Dylan and want to affirm his status; evenso, its shorthanded to think that they would quickly ignore films about "lesser" figures just because they aren't Gods of Rock or whatever. Even Nathaniel's piece goes to show that people aren't so in need of affirmation to ignore great filmmaking when its great filmmaking. If Haynes made a movie about Cheryl Tweedy, it could easily be as well received.

Wow...is it really 3:30 AM? Why the hell am I not there? (zing!...in bed, that is!) That's the lamest thing I have ever typed. I apologize to everyone who read it...

Anonymous said...

Absolutely love Velvet Goldmine. It has the most glam a film could have. Plus it has Ewan McGregor jumping up and down...naked. Really, what else does a film need?;)
On the other hand I thought I'm Not There was incredibly boring. The acting was great (on most parts) and of course the soundtrack is great.
But Velvet is iconic, I wouldn't even put the two films on the same level.

Anonymous said...

A Todd Haynes biopic of Cheryl Tweedy (I'm glad we're using her maiden name, btw) is something I would pay very good money to see. Can you imagine her and the Aloud in some outrageous Sandy Powell threads? Too awesome.


you are all so crazy. Cheryl Tweedy? But it's funny to hear Superstar mentioned as the top of Haynes' rock pictures if only because while typing this up I totally forgot about it. Even though I love it thiiiiiiiiiiis much and including it brings me to the forgotten realization that 1/2 of his filmography is pop/rock/music based.

I still think [safe] and Far From Heaven are Haynes' best films but the early stuff Dottie Gets Spanked, Poison, Superstar is wonderfully imagined and personal. I agree with James that one of the drawbacks of I'm Not There is that disconnected feel. I imagine it's more personal than it comes off but I do actually think it's the least of Haynes's 6 features.

Not that it's not good.

Billy D said...

Can someone do a shot-by-shot breakdown of "The Trolley Song?" As the single greatest musical interlude in cinematic history (I defy you...) it deserves it. And I'm too lazy to do it.

xoxo Thanks!

Andrew Bemis said...

Here's my (belated, sorry) contribution:


I love I'm Not There, but I can't disagree - Velvet Goldmine is better.


Billy D ---ooh, that's a great idea. Any takers?

Bemis --fashionably late!

Glenn Dunks said...

Can I just throw this out there:


It would be the single greatest movie-going experience of all time, no doubt.

Janice said...

And can I just throw this out there:

WHO is Cheryl Tweedy?

Off-topic I finally saw "Superstar" online and...wow. To read about, the use of dolls sounds like a joke - I wouldn't have believed it could be so moving. I'm just glad his career didn't get buried along with the film.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what you have to say. I haven't seen "I'm not there", i would like to, but "Velvet goldmine" to me is brilliant. It's a perfect film not only capturing an era but showcasing various lifestyles. It's beautiful and magical. One of my favorite movies. I will see "I'm not there" because I have heard it's a great film. I don't care for Dylan's voice but I love his songwriting.


cheryl tweedy janice i think it's a British thing. i didn't really know either.

Guy Lodge said...

FYI, Janice:

Cheryl Cole (nee Tweedy) is the most famous member of Girls Aloud, a terrific British girl group who have cornered the market in joyfully eccentric pop. Think The Supremes meets Franz Ferdinand, and you're about halfway there.

Cole, meanwhile, is a constant UK tabloid presence following her marriage to footballer Ashley Cole and her appointment this year as a judge on The X Factor -- the UK version of American Idol.

Check out "Biology," the Aloud's finest moment to date:


Whew, I could have just linked you to a Wikipedia article, but that wouldn'ty have been nearly as geeky :)

Anonymous said...

I feel like the reviews were stronger because it's a more masculine film on the whole. It's not as gay. I can't even think of an unapologetically queer film that got astounding reviews on the level of I'm Not There.

Anonymous said...

Is Brokeback Mountain queer? Are we using the academic definition or the prosaic definition?

Glenn said...

Girls Aloud (and thus Cheryl Cole/Tweedy) are God.

Arkaan, I'd say the difference between a queer film such as Velvet Goldmine and a queer film such as Brokeback Mountain is that the former is out to throw it in everyone's face and show the more flamboyant side of it.


yeah, i'd say Brokeback isn't "queer" in the political and definitely not in the aesthetic sense. It's so traditional aesthetically... so maybe it is queer politically for that subversion. Hmmmm.

good question

Anonymous said...

I just don't like the prosiac definition of queer (which is what Velvet Goldmine espouses, or more accurately, what david s probably means when he says "unapologetically queer"). Especially when it's used as a way to dismiss the critical response to one of my recent faves (I'm still behind on Haynes, but I think I'm Not There is his best).

Anonymous said...

I am not overly fond of the music of either Bob Dylan or David Bowie, and yet "Velvet Goldmine" and "I'm Not There" are two of my favorite films.

Both of Haynes' post-"Superstar" biopics reveal much more about their subjects than would be possible in a context that necessitated factual accuracy. He gets to the root of glam rock with composite characters that represent all of the rock stars who cultivated androgynous, bisexual, or homosexual images and then abandoned them the second that 70's sexual permissiveness petered out and AIDS hit- David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger. This is what I love about "Velvet Goldmine"- that it is not so much a celebration of the career of David Bowie, but an extremely sad film that mourns the betrayal of 70's queer youths by their heroes. The lack of David Bowie's cooperation greatly improves the film- the soundtrack that was created as a replacement is better than Bowie's material, and the Bowie character is cast in a defiantly negative light.

The reason that I find "I'm Not There" slightly less compelling is that it focuses on one specific figure rather than an entire trend or era of music. My favorite scenes, still, are the interview segments with Julianne Moore-as-Joan Baez, shooing cats out of her chair and wearing lots of turquoise jewelry. The two times I saw "I'm Not There" in the theater, my friends and I laughed hysterically at these parts that were CLEARLY INTENDED TO BE FUNNY because EVERYONE KNOWS JOAN BAEZ SUCKS and the movie BRIEFLY BECOMES "A MIGHTY WIND" WITH THOSE GREAT STILLS OF JULIANNE IN A HIPPIE WIG and we received disturbed and nervous looks from the rest of the audience, who had deduced that since they were seeing an "art film" that was not marketed as a comedy they could not laugh at anything in it. When the DVD came out months later I was vindicated; Haynes said that he had to leave the room when Julianne Moore was filming the aforementioned scenes because he was laughing so hard. Take that, stuffy Alamo Drafthouse patrons!

I agree with those who have said that "I'm Not There" was easier for critics to embrace both because it did not feature the kind of confrontational, explicit queerness of "Velvet Goldmine" and because of its having a subject as worshiped as Bob Dylan. The queerness of "Velvet Goldmine" is astonishing to this day and frankly I have no idea how it sort of slipped under the radar; that movie is GAY. It's more shocking now that Ewan McGregor and Christian Bale have become huge stars- to see them having beautiful, romantic anal sex while Oscar Wilde's UFO sprinkles glitter on them. Male bisexuality is also rarely, if ever, presented as anything other than a joke in film and "Velvet Goldmine" has equally hot scenes of heterosexual and homosexual couplings. I just can see very easily how American critics would just not know where to put this. Its critical reputation has gotten much bigger over the years, as has its following- "Velvet Goldmine" is extremely popular with young girls because they get to see their favorite male movie stars make out with each other in awesome outfits.

That said, "Safe" is without a doubt Haynes' best film and is possibly the greatest film ever made by anyone ever. :)