“Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume.”
From that opening epigraph, Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine opens up into a whimsical origin story about the glam-rock movement of the early ‘70s, flashing back to the birth of Oscar Wilde in 1854 Dublin. In the film’s mythology, Wilde is an orphan from outer space, delivered to a doorstep with an emerald amulet attached to his blanket. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, the young Wilde says, “I want to be a pop idol” long before pop idols ever existed. And when a future pop idol by the name of Brian Slade ends up with the amulet 120 years later, he becomes a hero for a generation of outcasts who can express their sexuality and engage in their own act of creation. By shedding his assigned identity, Brian Slade opened up possibilities for himself as an artist and for his fans as human beings.
Music has been an important part of Haynes’ identity as a filmmaker all the way back to “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” his 43-minute experimental short from 1987 about the tragic life of The Carpenters’ lead singer, which used Barbies as stand-ins for the actors. “Superstar” was removed from circulation in 1990 after Karen’s brother and collaborator Richard Carpenter won a copyright infringement suit against it, but plenty of bootlegged copies were (and are) available. The Barbie conceit may sound like “Superstar” was looking at Karen’s life from an ironic distance, but that couldn’t be further from the truth: Barbies were Haynes’ way of suggesting the terrible, repressive strictures of Carpenter’s persona, and how they eventually killed her.
With Velvet Goldmine—and later, with the 2007 film I’m Not There, which cast six different actors to cover the many phases of Bob Dylan—Haynes is again using a fictional conceit to tell a deeper truth. He could have made a straightforward history about Bowie and the Ziggy Stardust years or Iggy Pop and the Stooges, but fidelity to biography is often boring and inadequate, especially when dealing with artists who shed their original identities like molted skin. If their careers are about reinvention, then it makes sense for the form to match it.
The form Haynes chooses is Citizen Kane, with Christian Bale in the Joseph Cotton role of Arthur Stuart, a journalist investigating the mysterious past of a public figure, and that emerald brooch standing in for “Rosebud.” It’s the 10th anniversary of the night Brian Slade, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, staged his own assassination on tour, which was essentially an act of career suicide—and perhaps a deliberate one at that. Through interviews with Slade’s original manager and his former wife, played by Toni Collette, Arthur traces the rise and fall of Slade’s career as an androgynous pop idol, including the invention of his Ziggy Stardust-like alter-ego Maxwell Demon and and his relationship with Curt Wild, an Iggy Pop stand-in played by Ewan McGregor. But this is not just the story of Brian Slade and Curt Wild, but the story of Arthur Stuart and the many like him whose lives were transformed by their image and their music.
That’s what ultimately separates Velvet Goldmine from Citizen Kane: Arthur isn’t a narrative device, but the reason the movie exists. He’s the audience surrogate. He’s the young man who picked up a Brian Slade album and discovered his true self, along with the other liberated souls who defied what society expected from them. That’s the cultural legacy of the glam movement and it’s the legacy of Velvet Goldmine itself, a film that was sabotaged by Harvey Weinstein at the time and opened to mixed reviews, but has since become a touchstone in cult cinema and queer cinema. It’s entirely appropriate that cultural gatekeepers rejected it just as glam rock was rejected, and entirely just that it’s been discovered and fervently embraced by the outcasts it represents.
Or maybe we’re still divided over it. We’ll find out…