When pretention becomes all the rage what does the new wave have to turn to—and for that matter, turn against?
Velvet Goldmine is a tale told in flashback of the beginnings of glitter-pop that would eventually morph into punk just a few years later. I apologize for the length of the summary, but the film is very complex (I tried to cut it down, but I couldn’t make it happen and have it make sense).
Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) works for a New York newspaper. He is given a story to cover the tenth anniversary of a faked murder of a glitter-pop icon Brian Slade. Slade had truly become his alter ego Maxwell Demon (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). The editor gives the assignment to Arthur because he would have been in a position to remember. Turns out this is more than just a little true.
Arthur interviews Slade’s first manager Cecil (Michael Feast) and ex-wife Mandy (Toni Collette). Arthur was a mod and at the concert where Slade was “shot” and is in a position, like any other fan, to know about his career as Slade cum Demon. Cecil and Mandy give Arthur the back story and the history of Slade’s beginnings, something even a serious fan wouldn’t know.
Slade is one of the ‘ahead of his time’ types. He dispensed with the rules for everything, especially expression. Broad sexuality openly displayed is married with every sort of pretention imaginable shown most publically in, let’s say, seriously inconvenient costumery.
Because Cecil is small time, Jerry Devine (Eddie Izzard) steps in as manager. Through Devine, Slade takes over the British music scene. Shortly after this, they set off for the US. Having seen him perform before and wowed by his antics, Brian wants to meet Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). This leads first to a deal that makes Wild a producer and collaborator. Shortly after this, Slade and Wild have a full on relationship and full on failure.
From here, Slade’s career spiral is so high and moving so fast none of the principles can keep up with it. After his fake assassination, Brian Slade just disappears.
There are two more things: first, there is a mystery I will leave untouched; second Velvet Goldmine is wrapped in an odd frame narrative that begins with Oscar Wilde and a particular green agate (?) broach.
I saw this when it was released in 1997. At the time, everyone was saying that Slade was David Bowie and Wild was Iggy Pop. I know very little about each ‘real’ person and keep it that way (for multiple reasons). I mention this only to say that I will not take this on as a type of bio-pic gone wrong essay.
The four principles were fantastic in their roles. I like all of them and have seen most of their movies; rarely have I been truly disappointed. Mr. McGregor had played a similar role in Trainspotting but Goldmine allowed him so much freedom that he could literally do anything he wanted and get away with it, nudity of all kinds included. The film allowed Mr. Rhys Meyers to show a wide range of emotions from timid late teen to destroyed pop icon. Ms. Collette amazes me all the time. Accents are pet peeves of mine; she can pull of any accent necessary. In this case she has to do a balancing act. In Britain she has to fake a British accent because she plays an American ex-pat wanting to do away with her roots, so she puts on a very affected accent. Back in the US, her accent is a mix of American and British accents. That she can do the accents and act as well as she does impresses me greatly. Mr. Bale’s role is a bit different. He plays two different personas, but they are really not all that different, a level of disappointment is part of both the young and older Arthur. His role is as a driving force for the investigation, so his is a smaller role, but he makes it effective nonetheless.
In brief, all performances were top notch.
The choice of lighting played an interesting role. There were significant half-shadows, particularly on faces. The symbolism and implication are simple and direct: they show that each person in the film had a person (the shadow half in my opinion) and the persona in full light—this is made more plain due specifically to how much makeup the principles had on.
I was still cutting baby teeth when this music scene led its brief life, but from what I know of it, the original songs were very close analogs to the mod music period covered in Goldmine.
The beginnings of this tale are around 1971-72 (the mod portion ends in 1974). There was a huge void left in music at this time. The Beatles had broken up. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin all died due to overdoses of one sort or another. This was all in 1970. What had started as pop in the early 60s became a countercultural musical score. I don’t know if the counterculture drove the shift in music or the other way around. Either way, the music went from the early pop of The Beatles of 1964 to the totally freaked out version of them just 4 years later.
When the driving forces all hit a brick wall at the same time, what next? As would happen, it was glitter-pop or whatever else you want to call it. The Carnaby Street style was replaced by a glitter mod. The new style was: the more outrageous and shiny the outfit, the better; the more severe the makeup regardless of gender, the better.
Mores were pretty much tossed by the wayside. The counterculture of the late 60s with sex and drugs defining the group was replaced by pretention and snobbery that is very ironic: you only fit in if you didn’t fit in—if you tried to be mod, you were a poseur. With regards to fitting in hippies didn’t care, mods did.
Velvet Goldmine examines this shift. The broken up and dead listed above were still considered themselves. The mod movement shifted and the lead singer or soloist took on a look and persona so the artist was as divorced from the person as the music was from all that had come before it. What the persona did was often more important than the music.
The performance on stage became extremely important. This is where Velvet Goldmine really won me over.
Goldmine used I believe 2 things to make the stage play so well done (one is perhaps tangential, the other is essential). Andy Warhol’s “The Factory” seemed to be a bit ahead of the times. Warhol’s pop art and outrageous pretention was a sort of early dynamo. The second thing was color television. Extremely colorful costumes would be meaningless on black and white television. In some cases this severely inconvenient dress was all that viewers saw. The person in the clothes was secondary, nothing more than a moving mannequin. Quite literally the Yellow Submarine couldn’t compete with even the simplest outfits the mods wore.
I mention this at the end of the review because a review with a frame narrative would be difficult to follow. The Oscar Wilde frame narrative is odd and seems out of place, but it is a symbol at least as simple and direct as the lighting. Oscar Wilde shirked the conventions of his day in nearly every way he could. In a way, the mods were the true heirs of Mr. Wilde. Early pop and even nascent rock were still mainly about the music (including Elvis and The Beatles I believe). Punk was too severe to be an heir, or even step-child of Mr. Wilde’s. The mods shirked tradition and social custom in much the same way and had the sexual aspect that pre-mod and punk did not. So the green broach at the beginning and the end made sense to me.
The one thing that didn’t make sense is a tryst between Arthur and Curt Wild. There is a back stage meeting where the two had sex. This is followed a bit later by a grainy home movie reel that shows the two having more than just a casual relationship. The question I couldn’t answer is if it is real or just imagined. If you view the whole movie as pretention to a maximum degree, then it is fake. If you look at the film containing an element of truth, then the answer is less clear—to me it is not truly answerable.
I fully admit to being no expert in this style of music, so if I have made mistakes, please mention them in the comment section. If I have made glaring errors, I will add errata to the review.
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