This review is long overdue a re-write! So it’s finally getting one. (3/2/17, for a post first published on 5/27/16. Definitely long overdue!) I’ll leave the original review below in strikethrough, in case anyone’s curious to see what it said.
So, a proper review of my new favorite movie, Velvet Goldmine. It’s from 1998, but I only first saw it last May, mere days before it was taken down from Netflix. I had come across its thumbnail earlier in browsing through Netflix, and had clicked on it because I wondered what in the world the title meant.
(To be honest, I still don’t know what the title means.) Since I quoted the Netflix summaries before, I can give you both the shorter and longer version of their summaries. The “on mouse rollover” summary was:
Trying to find the man behind all the mystery, a journalist delves into the life of a missing glam rocker.
Clicking on it brought up this further summary:
A decade after a British glam-rocker fakes his assassination and disappears, a tabloid journalist is dispatched to deconstruct the star’s legend.
That’s all it said, along with the information that it starred Ewan McGregor, Johnathon Rhys-Meyers and Christian Bale. (Well, that’s what it said the first time I saw it on the Netflix list, months earlier. When I saw it there again in May, it had replaced Bale’s name with Toni Colette’s. Presumably because she’s third in the cast list and he’s fourth, but considering his character’s mentioned in the summary and hers isn’t…) And I must say in looking at that second summary, two things leap to mind. One: he is not a tabloid journalist! He works for a perfectly respectable newspaper (as far as we can tell, but he had previously been assigned to cover the visit of President Reynolds to NYC, which seems pretty legit to me). Two: the word “deconstruct” should officially be banned from use by all people who don’t know what it means.
So when I read the premise back whenever that was, I added it to my “to watch” list, for three reasons.
- Two hot actors.
- Intriguing plot, what little of it was described.
- I was wondering why it was listed in the “Gay and Lesbian” section.
Yeah. Netflix failed to add that little tidbit to its summary. Oh, and the distributors of the DVD and Blu-ray versions? They failed to add that to their summaries, too. For that matter, the theatrical trailer didn’t even hint at it! I cannot imagine what I would have thought of this movie if I had discovered it in some other way. (Well, okay, actually, because of when I discovered it, I still would have liked it. If I’d seen it in the theaters when it came out without knowing what it really was, I have no idea how I would have reacted.)
A more accurate back-of-the-box blurb for the movie might be written as follows:
In a bleak, almost Orwellian version of 1984, a young reporter (Christian Bale) is given the assignment to write a retrospective on the career of legendary ’70s glam rock singer Brian Slade (Johnathon Rhys-Meyers). As he interviews Brian’s ex-wife Mandy (Toni Colette), the audience begins to see the other side of Brian’s career, especially his passionate affair with fellow rock star Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). But no one seems willing to answer the question “whatever happened to Brian Slade?”
Of course, even that fails to do it justice. Most of the movie takes place during the 1970s, as you might expect, including the opening, before we get the first 1984 sequence. (Well, okay, actually the opening starts in the 19th century, with the birth — uh, arrival on this planet — of Oscar Wilde, but that’s a bit different.) You might be surprised by which primary cast member you meet first in that first 1974 sequence: Christian Bale’s. His character, Arthur Stuart, was a big fan of Brian’s in the ’70s, and was in the audience when he faked his own death on stage. (Which is, of course, where the movie starts.) So it’s rather odd that he’s the last name before the title, because he’s probably got the second largest amount of screen time in the film. (Not that I’ve timed it or anything. But he dominates the 1984 sequences, for obvious reasons, and we get a lot of his flashbacks to the ’70s, too. And he was still young enough in 1998 that he convincingly looked like a teenager in those sequences. Now that I’ve discovered Newsies is streaming on Hulu, I have to watch that and have a look at how his appearance in that compares to Arthur’s teenage self, since he’d have been about Arthur’s ’70s age when that was filmed. Also I’m curious if he was towering over the adults in the cast…plus I’m generally curious about the movie in the first place…)
Intriguingly, I can give you an absolutely perfect analogy for what the plot is like. It’s Citizen Kane. Only with more sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. (Not that Citizen Kane had any of those things…) Seriously, though, it’s exactly structured like Citizen Kane; we start out with the modern equivalent of a newsreel being shown in the newsroom (with the addition of some of Arthur’s memories), which ends with the death of Brian’s career after his shooting is revealed as a hoax. Arthur is given the assignment to find out where he is now, because “next week” will be the tenth anniversary of the shooting hoax. (Slight problem there; I looked it up, and the tenth anniversary of the shooting hoax was that coming Sunday, which is pretty different from “next week” when you’re talking about writing a puff piece “for the weekender”. But I guess looking things like that up was still pretty inconvenient in 1998. Now it’s really easy because the calendar app on my iPad will literally scroll back past the fall of Troy. (Yeah, I tried that once. Getting there took a very long time.)) So, in Citizen Kane, when Joseph Cotten’s character is sent to investigate Kane’s last words, who’s the first person he talks to? Kane’s former business partner, who’s now in a wheelchair, and is acting a bit distracted. And in Velvet Goldmine, the first person Arthur talks to is Brian’s first manager, who is now in a wheelchair (presumably having contracted AIDS, but it’s never addressed), and is acting a bit distracted. And next up is the ex-wife. Only instead of a mistress who wants to be an opera singer even though she sucks, Brian Slade had a blond American rock god for a lover. (Okay, I may be a little biased here…but do you have any idea how sexy Ewan McGregor is in this movie? It’s hard not to become obsessed…)
Now, that’s just the structure, and after a certain point, the similarities fade away and stop. (The message is especially different. In Citizen Kane the message was basically just “William Randolph Hearst is a terrible person” (oversimplification) but the message of Velvet Goldmine is much more complex, not something to be grasped on a single viewing. But it also functions perfectly well as “entertainment without message.”) I think I know why the similarities are there, though. If you’ve ever seen a DVD or Blu-ray copy of the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night (another movie I dearly love, btw), you’re probably familiar with a quote that’s always plastered on the box which called it “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.” I think one of the filmmakers looked at that quote and called it BS…then decided to do a jukebox musical that really was Citizen Kane. I find support for my theory by the fact that both A Hard Day’s Night and Velvet Goldmine open with screaming teenage fans swarming down the streets of London to an up-tempo song.
Before I go any further, I feel like I should address one more thing about this movie, or rather about my reaction to it. Something that’s actually rather important to how my brain first interpreted it — and in a way always will interpret it. You see, I was raised in a rather unusual situation. My father detests music with vocals. Period. No matter the genre. I’m talking about a man who will buy a copy of the soundtrack to a Bond movie and then find an instrumental of the song to replace the song in his playlist. (Even with the good songs.) So in my childhood, the only way I got to hear songs was if it was in a Disney movie or on the Muppets. (Or in other movies, but you get the idea, right?) I had no real friends as a child, no local relatives my age; no one to take me under their wing and teach me about popular music. Almost all the rock I know I’ve discovered through the movies. (With a few rare exceptions from the super-brief period in my senior year of high school and first year or two of college when I tried to be “normal” and watch MTV.)
Therefore, in first watching this movie, I had no idea that Brian and Curt were inspired by real people. And although I’ve since learned that — at least in terms of musical and visual style — Brian is based on early ’70s David Bowie, and that Curt is based on Iggy Pop, it’s a very “academic” knowledge that doesn’t interact with the movie in my mind. (I’m trying to think of a cogent parallel here that might apply to more normal people. Maybe if someone saw My Private Idaho without knowing it was based on one of the parts of Henry IV, that kind of thing. (Sorry, I’ve never actually seen My Private Idaho, so I don’t remember if it was part one or part two.)) Because my knowledge of rock history is so limited, David Bowie has always been — and will forever be — Jareth the Goblin King, and it’s hard to connect someone so unearthly and perfect to, you know, a human being with normal human flaws and foibles.
So, for me, the glam rock phenomenon and all its layers exist in a fictional fairyland exclusively within this movie. Even though I know, consciously, that that isn’t true. I’m sure that robs the movie of a lot of its power and weight, but it also lets me interact with the film purely as a text, without the baggage of reality interfering. (I am starting to sound very shallow, aren’t I?)
Anyway, getting back to the movie itself, it has a lot of surreal moments. Times when you’re not sure if you’re watching an early ’70s music video, or how Brian felt his music should be interpreted, or how his fans interpreted the music. (Probably the music video, but…) If they had done less of that, they could have included more story, but this was a stylistic choice, and in part probably again a reference to A Hard Day’s Night, which did frequently interrupt the story for a song.
A lot of the songs in the movie were re-recordings for the movie, because the cast do their own singing. (Original recordings were used for songs not being performed by any of the movie’s characters, however.) The version of the movie’s soundtrack that you can buy on CD or .mp3 is a let-down, though; it leaves off a large number of the original recordings (I had to buy five more off Amazon’s .mp3 department) and it criminally leaves off one of Curt’s only two songs. (Seriously, why would you have Ewan McGregor do an awesome job singing a song and then not put it on the soundtrack?! Even worse, the one of his songs they do include was recorded on inferior equipment so it sounds like he’s singing through a tin can telephone. The version in the movie sounded so much better…but it also had dialog over it, so I can’t just sample it out of the movie or something…) I would love to see a vinyl release of the proper soundtrack to this movie, with all the songs. (Yeah, I know. That falls squarely in the “never gonna happen in a million years” camp.)
Okay, I’ve talked about the rock’n’roll, and I’ve touched on the sex (though I’ll come back to it in a minute), so now I’m going to look at the drugs for a moment. Though one of the DVD covers for this movie shown on IMDB loudly proclaims it to be “one of the most explicit movies ever about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” the drugs aren’t actually that big a part of the story. (Though I wonder if Ewan was worried he was going to get typecast: Curt starts out the movie as a heroin addict.) Of course, that cover would likely have disappointed anyone who bought it anyway, because the only thing they show on the front is Curt in concert, which only happens twice in the whole movie, and despite that he has top billing, Curt’s really more of a supporting player, and not a very talkative one. (In fact, I think his name was probably originally a character description that just turned into his name at some point.)
One thing it is explicit about is sex. Well, okay, not exactly. While there is — as you might expect — a lovely full-frontal nude scene for Ewan, most of the sex scenes are more thematic than explicit. But there are definitely a lot of them, in all sorts of combinations. Curt and Brian also share one of the most intense screen kisses ever.
A more interesting question is how this movie resonates with LGBTQIA+ audiences…which unfortunately I can’t really answer, because I fall into the “A” category there, and there’s not as much call for fiction addressing our issues. (In part because we have fewer issues, because no one can look at us and say “you’re sinning by being asexual!” because how could they look at me and know I’m asexual, when they could make the easier assumption that I’m shopping while my husband/boyfriend does the laundry?) I think it probably rings very true — the writer/director is an important gay filmmaker, and one of the producers is an important lesbian filmmaker — and certainly I’ve seen people online reacting to a few key scenes that hit them very powerfully when they saw the movie as a teenager. (OMG, though, who in the world let a 14 year old in to see this movie? Full-frontal nudity! More swearing than you could shake a stick at! Sex scenes! And did I mention the nudity?) Certainly, it does address some subjects, particularly regarding media attention to bisexuality, as well as gender image issues, with the gentle strokes that let the audience come to their own conclusions, rather than telegraphing a message.
It’s a real pity this movie isn’t better known. I think a lot of its subject matter is actually more relevant now than it was when it was made.
Last time I checked, Amazon had it available streaming as a “rental,” which is free for Prime members, so if anyone’s curious about the movie and already happens to be a Prime member, I would definitely recommend checking it out. (I should have checked to see if Hulu had it available…) I mean, actually, I’d recommend checking it out anyway, but it’s easier to say “just watch it!” when you’re not asking anyone to slap any money down on the viewing.
Oh, before I close out the new review, let me just address a complaint I’ve seen in several places, like in reviews on Amazon. I’ve seen a lot of people complain about the “inconsistency” of Toni Colette’s accent. But I think they’re missing the point: in the ’70s, she sounds more or less British, because she’s been living in England for an unspecified period of time (when she arrived is not made clear, but she had probably been some time by her earliest chronological appearance, New Year’s Eve, 1969), and being then young and impressionable and doing her best to fit in and join the party scene, she’s picked up a bit of the local accent. (Whether intentionally or unintentionally.) This sort of thing often happens when you live in another region for a long time, particularly when you’re younger. But for the 1984 section, Mandy is in New York (she is originally American, though where in America she originated is never specified), and her accent is more or less straight American, because she’s been back for a long time — probably most of the intervening ten years — and the British accent she had temporarily picked up has been lost again. So, in my interpretation, the accent thing is a purposeful choice. (I could go on for several pages about Arthur’s accent, btw, and the subtle changes in it across the film. I think the Manchester accent is my new favorite British accent…even if I’m having trouble narrowing down when letters get dropped and when they don’t…)
A very late review, in several key respects. In the most obvious respect, because this movie is from 1998, so it took me quite a while to see it. (I’d never even heard of it until it came up on a category list on Netflix.) In a slightly less obvious respect, because Netflix is only going to be streaming it until the first of June, so this review isn’t likely to be read by very many people before the movie is no longer (easily) available. So some months back I was looking through Netflix, and I see a thumbnail roughly like this: “Roughly” because I was seeing it on my iPad, so it wasn’t quite identical to this, but it had been PhotoShopped out of the same components, so we’ll go with this one. (Yes, that’s a screen-cap from Netflix. What else would it be?) I was curious what the title meant, so I looked at the quick precis of the movie, which read something like “Trying to find the man behind all the mystery, a journalist delves into the life of a missing glam rocker.” (That’s what it says currently, anyway.) Looking at the further tab, I saw that it starred Ewan McGregor and Christian Bale, and I was like “yep, add that to my list!” (Oddly, it no longer lists Christian Bale when you ask Netflix for more information on the film.) Fastforward several months to a few nights ago, when I decided I was sick of gaming for the evening, and not in the right frame of mind to write, and wanted to watch something instead. I start looking through my list on Netflix, and see the little warning that it’ll only be available until 6/1/16 (which I’m not seeing on the computer version; is it only being cut off for iPad?) and decide that this’ll be the one I watch. (I wanted to download the poster image from IMDb and put that here, but it wouldn’t let me. You can see it here, though. I find it remarkable that they managed not to line up any of the names and faces correctly, even though it would have made more sense for the movie’s story if they had!) The lengthier version of the Netflix summary reads as follows: “A decade after a British glam-rocker fakes his assassination and disappears, a tabloid journalist is dispatched to deconstruct the star’s legend.” Like the shorter precis, this one is not at all a good indicator of what’s in the picture. In fact, it’s downright wrong: it’s more of a “where is he now” kind of assignment, not “deconstructing” his legend. (And I didn’t see anything off-hand that indicated what kind of paper it was; it might have been a tabloid, or it might have been a normal, respectable paper. I don’t think it’s actually relevant what kind it was.) The 1984 section of the movie is a framing device, exactly and very intentionally identical to the one in Citizen Kane, to the extent that the first two people our 1984 reporter (Bale) talks to are someone who worked with the rocker in his early career but is now confined to a wheelchair for no readily apparent reason, and his ex-wife. The similarities with Kane end about there, though.
Despite that Ewan McGregor gets top billing, he’s not the ‘missing’ rocker: he’s a blonde, American(!) rock star who gets naked on stage in his first performance in the story. No, wait, that’s not the important thing about him at all! (Sorry, it’s hard not to get distracted by naked Ewan McGregor…) Okay, let me back up a bit. (Writing movie reviews is new to me, so please bear with me.) Please ignore this paragraph…while not forgetting the full frontal nudity part…
A key difference between Velvet Goldmine and Citizen Kane is in the reporter who is our window into the story that unfolds on the screen. (Obviously, there are tons of other differences, given that one of the figures whose lives are being narrated for us is a bisexual rock star and the other is a newspaper magnate.) In Kane, Joseph Cotten’s reporter is a true everyman for the story, utterly unrelated to Kane in any way, apart from knowing who he was. (Cotten also got second billing on the picture, right after Orson Welles. Bale gets an “and” at the end of the opening cast list. Second billing goes to Jonathon Rhys Myers…who played the central character.) Bale’s reporter, Arthur Stuart, on the other hand, is deeply tied to the story he’s been assigned, as we immediately learn that he was in fact in the audience at the concert when Brian Slade’s fake assassination took place, and had been one of Slade’s most dedicated fans. Not only is the assignment much more personal for him than his boss could ever realize, his teenage(?) self recurs in flashbacks showing what he was doing at the time of some of the events, and how powerfully Slade’s career impacted him. (There isn’t a good place to mention this, but I was quite surprised the first time Bale spoke in the picture: he was using what I consider The Full Monty accent, in that his character is from somewhere in that region of England.) The story starts with the tale of Slade’s on-stage faked death, which was revealed (by his producer, played by Eddie Izzard) as a “stunt” within twenty-four hours, ruining his career permanently. (This corresponds with Kane’s death, obviously.) That’s where the story starts, but not where the movie starts. The movie — confusingly — starts with a UFO passing overhead, following which a woman opens a door and finds an infant on the doorstep, with a sparkling green broach on his blankets. The woman, a servant, calls to “Madam Wilde” in alarm…I’m not sure if they were claiming that Oscar Wilde was an alien, or just a foundling with an alien broach, but either way it was odd, to say the least. But “odd” is quite in line with the rest of the film. After the usual few scenes to set up Slade’s pre-rock life, we follow his career from its beginning in about 1970 onwards up to and even a bit past his faked death in 1974. His ex-wife, an American played by Toni Collette, is (un)surprisingly uninvolved in most of Slade’s life, and spends too much of her time merely being a passive observer of events. (Though I knew I’d seen her name before somewhere, I completely didn’t recognize her from Muriel’s Wedding. That explains the slightly muddled accent, though: partially Britishized American would be hard enough for either an American or a Briton, but for an Australian? Of course it’d be more difficult! Neither portion of the accent is native.) Far more crucial to Slade’s life is McGregor’s American rocker, Curt Wild, who both influences Slade’s stage persona and becomes a powerful force in his life as friend, singing partner and lover. We don’t just witness Slade’s career, though, but also his impact on his fans, which is partially seen through Stuart’s memories, and partially through more general views of the fans through news footage of the time. Slade’s public persona is almost androgynous, often wearing heavy make-up, feathers, or glitter, and his fashions influence his fans, leading to a cavalcade of bright and garish early 1970s fashions parading across the screen. (And while Slade is fictional, I’m pretty sure the fashions are genuine.) The character’s rise and fall are well realized in both the writing and the performance; the dramatic scenes feel like they could be the real — if sometimes sordid — life of an over-the-top rock star. However, this is also a movie where I spent a lot of time saying “what the heck am I looking at?” Not in a bad way, mind you: confused as I sometimes was, it was never in an “I don’t want to be looking at that” kind of way. It’s a bit like having music videos inserted into the movie without warning or explanation. Rather, I think that’s exactly what it is. But sometimes it’s unclear if it’s an actual music video that Slade was performing to have shown on…um…wherever they showed music videos in the early 1970s, or if it’s how he personally interprets the song, or how his fans imagine him singing it, or what. I realize that sounds very minor, but some of this stuff is really, really weird. It would probably have helped if I knew anything about British glam rock in the early 1970s. (I’m assuming there really was such a thing, but I don’t know for sure.) If Slade’s persona was based on any performer in particular, I’m not aware of it. Likewise Wild’s, for that matter, though at first I suspected maybe his stage mannerisms might have been an exaggerated version of Jim Morrison’s…though maybe I only thought that because he wasn’t wearing a shirt, or because the music itself was heavily Doors influenced? (I don’t know; I wasn’t born until 1975, so the manner in which people performed rock on stage in the years before 1974 are obviously a bit alien to me.) Anyway, confusion aside, I definitely enjoyed this movie. (Though I’m ashamed to admit that my favorite scene is probably the rooftop sex scene near the end…) Some of the songs were original (I think) but in style of the period, while others were actual songs I’ve heard before, but I liked all of them, and Slade’s wild persona and his and Wild’s stage antics (both separately and together) were extremely engaging. My biggest complaint is that I feel like it had a message, but I’m not sure what it was. What I know it had was excellent performances, incredible costumes, and some great songs. (Some actually performed by Rhys Myers and McGregor, btw. They did their own singing.) If you’re interested in seeing a sometimes surreal movie about the wild side of early 1970s rock, I’d recommend checking this one out. I know this is very different from my usual posts, but I just felt like sharing. EDIT (6/22) — This movie has, like, totally taken over my life. Seriously, I think I’m becoming obsessed. Not long after I posted this, there was a “buy 2 get 1 free” event on used DVDs and Blu-rays at a local store, so I picked up the DVD, but that was only the start of it. Even after watching it a second time, I felt the need to go back again and check out a few key scenes to determine a few “how much does he know” type things, and try to get a better understanding of the subplot I didn’t even mention in this review. And I keep wondering how the story was going to proceed past the end of the film. I even went onto Fanfiction.net to see if there was any fanfic, partially to blunt my own desire to return to the fanfic realm and write some myself. (There were 308 fanfics listed, btw, though I haven’t decided if I’m going to read any of them yet. Though of the ones on the first screen, I was surprised how few of them were of the pairing I was expecting. (By which I mean the pairing that’s been taking over my brain and giving me disturbingly lewd fantasies for the last three weeks…)) Speaking of that subplot I didn’t mention, I should mention it. It really only comes up late enough in the film that I don’t want to go into any detail, but it’s almost Orwellian, though it’s so subtle (and so hard to notice behind the glitter and the sexy) that it becomes less so. It’s no coincidence that the movie’s set in 1984, though. (A particularly bleak 1984 at that. But that’s part of the point.) I think it safe to say that the subplot is the reason that the 1984 section — which is set in New York, I realize I failed to mention earlier — makes up a fictional president, rather than using Reagan for the two scenes in which the president is actually mentioned. (Oddly, the fact that it’s an election year isn’t mentioned. But I suppose if their fictional president was as popular as his historical counterpart, then if it was still early in the year — a warm January or February, or maybe even as late as March — the coming election wouldn’t have been as big a deal, because it would have seemed a foregone conclusion. But the upcoming election may have played a role in the motivations behind the subplot, even though it wasn’t mentioned.) Honestly, this subplot is one of the reasons I’m hesitant to check out the fanfic: I’m afraid that it won’t be addressed, even though it could add so much more depth to the continuing story. One more thing I didn’t mention before — or even notice the first time around — is about that first performance by McGregor’s Curt Wild: the character has a very active stage presence, including a lot of jumping around. And after he gets naked, he tries to continue jumping around, only to fall over because he’s still got his pants down around his ankles. I don’t know how I missed that the first time, but it’s really stuck with me since then. It’s wonderfully indicative of his character, and I find it quite adorable. (Then again, it’s a hot naked guy. How could I not?) I know there’s no reason to point that out, but…I have no one I can talk to about this in person, and I’ve been holding back a “that’s so cute!” squeeing fit for weeks now. Also, every time I watch any part of it — or even think about it — I’m more and more struck by just how adorable the young version of Bale’s character is. Except for one shot in one scene, he’s utterly believable as being genuinely ten years younger than in the 1984 sequences. Partially that’s hair, clothing and make-up, but a lot of it’s also in the performance; he was effectively playing two characters. Oh, and when I described the young Arthur Stuart as “adorable,” btw, I meant his behavior more than his appearance. Though his appearance is also adorable…