Velvet Goldmine is an extravaganza of lights, colours, music and metaphors. Serving not only as an encapsulation of the glam rock era, the immensity of what lies behind each character is abundantly visible upon the film’s unravelling -- and subsequently its second, third, fourth viewing. Drawing from the prominent figures of that generation, David Bowie, Iggy Pop (and to a certain extent, Marc Bolan and Lou Reed), Velvet Goldmine is given structure. Watching the ever-changing image of an emphatic Brian Slade, one reflects on Bowie, while Slade’s onstage persona, the rebellious and overbearing Maxwell Demon is reminiscent of the story that Bowie puts forth in his album, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – the tragedy of a falling (and fallen) rock star. Curt Wild, portrayed by Ewan McGregor, resembles Iggy Pop – bearing the history of Pop’s trailer park days and distinct onstage performances.
Through one side of the film (Curt Wild) the viewer derives an even more interesting familiarity. As Wild’s dominant form is that of the Stooges frontman, the true substance of his character can be drawn from one of the film’s primary inspirations, Oscar Wilde. In this vein, Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine establishes its base as an exploration of the meaning of art. Wild, whose character is expressed as the art of music in its true form, untouched by the real world, and the artist’s life, represents the light side of the film. On the other side – the glamorous, glittering, dark side – Brian Slade can be compared to the fictional Dorian Grey, or a superficial replica of art, contrasting music’s most significant quality, which is longevity.
Velvet Goldmine is not simply an ode to an era of great music, absurd fashion and extreme sexual liberation. It is a philosophy in its own right, in the form of a two-hour long music video. Most notably, it is important to remember that Haynes created a work of fantasy, merely to represent an era which was, on the whole, too illusory to be remembered through the eyes of the real world – everything in the film is deceptive, is metaphorical, is representative. And Haynes, through the fantastic world of Velvet Goldmine, expresses all that was, and is glam rock – the music, the love, the sex, the decadence and the art.
The references in the film play a big part in the viewer understanding what Haynes’ masterpiece (in my opinion) is all about. For one, multiple viewings help expose how much of the story is fuelled by the genius of Oscar Wilde. Lines like “a real artist creates beautiful things and puts nothing of his own life into them” are almost directly yanked from the author’s mind. The powerful significance of history throughout the telling of the story gives the film meaning within a much bigger picture than the glam generation. It becomes relevant to society in a broader sense than the specific era that it presents itself as. It also becomes palpable that Velvet Goldmine plays out along the same lines as Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane – noticeably from the way that Slade is presented as a mystery to be solved, a code to be deciphered.
And another component of Haynes’ Citizen Kane influence, Christian Bale, who plays Arthur Stuart, the reporter in search of a lost Brian Slade, is forced to revisit his glam-inspired past from a decade later. In this way, the viewer is granted a way into the affairs that comprise the bulk of the film from an outsider’s point of view. Observing each character in the film, it becomes pleasurably clear that each soul has been distanced from humanity enough to simply represent human personalities, each character becomes a representation, an exaggeration of somebody we might know in real life. With this in mind, much like glam rock at its apex, Velvet Goldmine mystifies itself enough to evoke a number of fascinating and undeniable truths.