Velvet Goldmine
directed by Todd Haynes
(Miramax, 1998)

It's 1984, and reporter Arthur Stuart has just landed the assignment of a lifetime: find out what happened to glam-rock idol Brian Slade, who disappeared shortly after faking his own on-stage assassination.

Stuart (Christian Bale) is the logical choice for the job. He was in the audience the night Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) supposedly was gunned down, and he'd been hanging around the glam-rock scene ever since he'd arrived in London. But he's reluctant to take the assignment, ostensibly because he'll be covering a presidential visit in a few days, but in actuality because his investigation will lead him back to a far-out, faraway and long-ago world he'd rather not re-enter.

Velvet Goldmine is good at dredging up far-out, faraway and long-ago worlds. It opens with space aliens leaving an infant Oscar Wilde on his parents' doorstep in Dublin and draws a not-so-straight and somewhat comical line from Wilde to Slade and the glam-rock musical scene of the early '70s.

Along the way, the film introduces us to a host of colorful and not-so-straight characters, most notably Slade's former wife, Mandy (Toni Collette); his manager (Eddie Lizzard), who made him what he is -- or was, for a brief and feathery period; and contemporary rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), a heroin-fueled pop icon who's part Jim Morrison, part San Francisco fire and earthquake.

Unfortunately, writer-director Todd Haynes chooses a complicated style in which to tell his even more complicated story. Stuart's questions invariably lead to flashbacks, both his interviewee's and his own, and from those flashbacks we're supposed to piece together a composite picture.

That makes Velvet Goldmine a sort of rock 'n' roll Citizen Kane, complete with a former wife who's now a nightclub singer and a former manager who speaks from his wheelchair.

But narrative cliches aren't Haynes' only problem. Haynes tries hard to be profound about the glam-rock scene, but comes up short with lines like "We set out to change the world, and ended up just changing ourselves." Wild says it; you could only wish he hadn't.

The result is Velvet Goldmine works best as a glam-rock gallery, a glittering portrait of a difficult-to-describe era in both rock and pop culture -- a time when bisexuality became buy-sexuality, when pent-up sexual frustration and confusion spilled over into the mainstream and, for a brief moment, controlled the current.

Haynes' early club and concert footage is electrifying, and Slade achieves a level of decadence even Wilde wouldn't have dreamed of. Rhys-Meyers makes the most of these scenes. It's impossible not to be fascinated by him, in any of his incarnations.

But as the film wears on, it wears out; the concert images grow old and the cliche count rises. Stuart accomplishes his mission, but Haynes does not. By the time we find out what's happened to Slade, we couldn't care less.

Ultimately, Velvet Goldmine adds up to less and less, and finally it fizzles entirely. Velvet it is; a gold mine it's not.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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