Velvet Goldmine (1998) Directed by Todd Haynes

We should all trust our instincts and judgements. Sometimes the memory plays games on you and you remember things much better than they really were.  The problem was I always thought Velvet Goldmine was rubbish and yet there I was on the sofa telling Astrid it would be nice to watch it again. I mean, you never know, right? Velvet Goldmine, over the passing of years may have transformed itself into something genuinely interesting and with some great points to make about gender, sexuality, duality, homosexuality – well any fucking uality you can think of. I saw this movie when I'd just arrived in Helsinki all those years ago, in some pokey cinema, the film was recommended to me by Uncut magazine as something worth my while. And Todd Haynes, although hit and miss, usually sustains enough quality across a picture, no? All you can really say is that the start of Velvet Goldmine holds some promise, early Brian Eno blaring, the youth running in platforms down the street. This scene holds some memory for me, going to the Saturday Morning Pictures in Staines with my sister who at the time was a huge Bolan/Bay City Rollers fan. I remember the tartan flares and sparkly platforms, there was a genuine high street revolution that involved both sexes.

Ewan McGregor embarrasses himself as Lou/Iggy hybrid Curt Wild
Sadly, Velvet Goldmine collapses under its own pretentiousness straight after this opening. Someone told  Haynes it would be important to throw Greil Marcus's' Lipstick Traces, Glam Rock and Citizen Kane in the blender, with a little sprinkle of Rocky Horror Picture Show naffness and everything would be alright. And let's not talk about Ewan Mcgregor's bloody accent or his even worse 'Performance' (a couple of the Roeg movie locals/ideas are used). Mcgregor plays an amalgamation of Lou Reed /Iggy Pop, whilst Christian Bale does his best as a coming of age journalist (although he looks too old most of the time). Jonathan Rhys Meyers sports his Bowie-like pout amongst the over the top fake-glam. One of the biggest problems for Velvet Goldmine is the soundtrack. Trying to tell the glam/Bowie story without any Bowie music is hard enough, bringing in members of Radiohead and Placebo to write a bunch of 1970's style tracks (with dated 1990's production) really drags the film low – especially when a lot of the film is soundtrack heavy. This is only really emphasized when a classic Bolan or Eno cut appears on the soundtrack. And although it's highly likely that this period was a heavily 'having it off with anyone' period for Haynes, he misses a big point about the fashion of the time. It was the feminisation of masculinity, a universal male awakening of identity. As an example, the football terrace's suddenly being populated by long haired, make-up wearing flared-up hooligans, whose hetero credentials were still in tact but liked a bit of rouge on their cheeks to go with their after game violence. That was the revolution, a slight subversion of gender identities.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers (right) plays the Bowie aping Brian Slade 
Haynes tries to tell his Glam picture story by mixing up characters from glam's history under one guise, stealing scenes from other rock referencing films and basically bringing a magpies mis-mash to the mix. The scene stealing from Citizen Kane is just plain bizarre (Haynes riffs on the investigative nature of Welles movie), something that Haynes gives up on mid-film. The nadir comes when Brian Molko appears on screen, it's probably a low point for cinema history. In fact, after the midway point when the film should pick up and maybe offer something, Velvet Goldmine drifts off into a lazy, hazy musical of indulgent fucking, little dialogue and no particular story. It's not like we really care for any of these characters amongst the exposed arses and tits. The best thing you could have said about Velvet Goldmine was its phantasy world of homo-heightened glam offered some insight, danger and innovation (as the scene itself offered originally) – but no, this glam world is so hopelessly dull you wonder why any of the seemingly glammed-up members of the public portrayed in the film got interested in the first place. 18 years on, Haynes movie feels and looks cheap. Many years later Haynes returned to Rock n Roll with his Dylan masterpiece I'm Not There, and in the processhe seems to have abolished in his own mind the disaster he created here.  

Today, the first of four holidays, I've spent going through papers, diaries, photos and other saved memorabilia in our cupboards. Therefore I've been living the past. I have managed to organize things better and to get rid of a lot of unnecessary stuff that got stored because of hasty packing. I have also had time to peek at some old photos and some old writing of mine. Looking at some journal entries from when I was 12, I must say I agree with Nora Ephron's mother: "everything is copy". Yes. And often the saddest little details from the past can seem funny or even hilarious 22 years later. For me Velvet Goldmine is from that personal past. I'm not sure if I saw it straight away when it came out into the cinema, or later from TV or at someone's house. Nevertheless, I remember feeling that it was a film made for me. I got it. In that way that is particularly possible for a teenager devoted to pop music. Later I got many other Todd Haynes directed films. I'm still a fan of his aesthetic.

Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Then years really piled on. I remembered Velvet Goldmine as this great movie about strange rock stars, mysterious love affairs, good looks, borderline behaviour and just beauty. What I found, watching in 2016 is a ghastly mess. A mess cinematically, a mess in relation to pop history, a mess of a narrative –– disappointing in every way. What used to be an approach to emotions that I found comfortable, is now something that makes me want to scream: the emotional ambiguity at the heart of this youthful film ultimately makes me indifferent to the whole piece. But in the 1990's emotional un-attachment and straight-up dissociation was just part of the package. I truly think that the movies I saw as a teenager encouraged me to swallow my feelings and not express them. It made me more tragic and cool –– like Juliette Binoche in Kieslowski's Blue. Blaah...

Juliette Binoche in Blue
Velvet Goldmine has not fared well. Now that David Bowie isn't here anymore, I feel offended when I see his character portrayed or reduced to a mere masquerade. Or when Iggy Pop gets the psychoanalytical treatment (and Ewan McGregor looks more like Kurt Cobain). Also, it is awful to hear some bad 1990s versions of classic songs. Makes the whole thing seem even more cheap. What about the gay themes? Shouldn't this have been a fun celebration of homosexuality, theatrical rock'n'roll and the youth culture that bloomed in the early 1970s in London? It just feels so lame the way desire and sex is dealt with here. Just hints and coy nods as if the movie was made before the 1970s and not after. Even rock docs will have more attitude in them than this polite collage. Maybe though, like my old journal entries, this movie will seem more fun in 10 to 15 years time.


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