“We have a very modest goal for this film,” director Todd Haynes told me in 1998, on the eve of releasing his sumptuous glam rock fantasia Velvet Goldmine. “That’s just to turn every gay person straight and every straight person gay.”
Launched at the Cannes Film Festival 20 years ago this month, Velvet Goldmine was an orgiastic celebration of high-camp fakery and gender-fluid sexuality. Full of decadent dandies, dazzling fabrics and daring fabrications, it arrived on a wave of unsustainable hype, confounded critics and bombed at the box office.
But viewed from deep into the 21st century, Velvet Goldmine looks increasingly like one of the great over-ambitious experimental cult films of indie auteur cinema. Riffing on the cultural connections between David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Oscar Wilde, Citizen Kane and queer theory, Haynes fashioned a knowingly counterfactual chronicle of the glam rock boom in early 1970s London, with heavy emphasis on polymorphous perversity and calculated artifice. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,” Wilde famously declared. “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
Casting Velvet Goldmine, Haynes and producer Christine Vachon cannily recruited a glittering cast of hip young faces and nascent superstars, including Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor, Toni Collette and Eddie Izzard. Then a virtual unknown 20-year-old, Rhys Meyers plays the Bowie-esque Brian Slade, a self-invented glam rock icon who fakes his own on-stage assassination at the peak of his fame, much like Bowie killed off his Ziggy Stardust character at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973.
McGregor plays Curt Wild, a wild American rocker closely modelled on Iggy Pop with a dash of Lou Reed, both friends and collaborators of Bowie. Cast by Haynes before his career-breaking breakthrough in Trainspotting (1996), McGregor looks eerily like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in his silver-blond moptop, just as Cobain had idolised and copied Iggy himself. Bale plays Arthur Stuart, a former teenage glam fan with furtive sexual urges towards both Wild and Slade. Now working as a reporter, Stuart is assigned to try and track down the long-dormant Slade 10 years after his career-killing rock’n’roll suicide.
Assembling a period-perfect soundtrack of music by Reed, Pop, Roxy Music, Marc Bolan, Gary Glitter, the New York Dolls and others, Haynes and his team called on the bright young things of the blossoming Britpop scene, both to provide songs and play minor roles. Members of Radiohead, Elastica, Pulp, Suede and Placebo all joined the party, alongside Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay, inviting parallels between different generations of androgynous art-rock poseurs.
More than two decades have now elapsed since Britpop peaked, the same period that divides Velvet Goldmine and the glam epoch it celebrates. In 2018, the film now plays as much like a wistful elegy for the fleeting Cool Britannia boom of the 90s as it does for the gender-bending pop revolutionaries who made 70s London swing both ways.
Notably absent from the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack is Bowie himself, even though the film is heavily inspired by his life story and titled after one of his Ziggy-era B-sides. After much deliberation, Bowie refused permission for six of his songs to be used. There was even talk of legal action.
But Haynes later found a way to put a positive spin on this setback. “Although at the time of course I was really disappointed, I think the film actually benefits from it not being Bowie music,” he said. “Because if there is ever a chance to read the Brian Slade character a little bit more fluidly, having him sing Bowie songs would have sealed that off completely.”
Even without Bowie’s blessing, Velvet Goldmine contains a cornucopia of cryptic clues for forensic glam fans. Aside from the obvious Ziggy parallels, the film also features thinly disguised facsimiles of Bowie’s first wife Angie (Colette), his famously protective longtime PA Coco Schwab (Emily Woof), his ex-managers Ken Pitt (Michael Feast) and Tony Defries (Izzard), and many more. There is even a cameo by Bowie’s former mime teacher and ex-lover Lindsay Kemp. Haynes also artfully re-imagines seminal moments from Bowie’s carefully constructed mythology, including his sensational self-outing as a bisexual and an infamous public kiss with Lou Reed.
Velvet Goldmine inevitably disappointed many critics and baffled audiences expecting a more orthodox glam-rock biopic. Released theatrically in late 1998, it earned back less than half its modest $9m budget. Two decades on, it remains an uneven viewing experience, full of odd tonal shifts and dramatic loose ends. The central mystery of Slade’s stealth comeback, in the guise of a socially conservative pop superstar during the Reagan-Thatcher years, is left hazy and unresolved instead of forming a satisfying Rosebud climax.
In fairness, some of these flaws can be explained by budget issues. Shortly before production began, its French backers CiBy 2000 collapsed, forcing Haynes and Vachon to shave at least a million dollars and several weeks from an already squeezed schedule. But Velvet Goldmine was also hobbled by its own muddled intentions and overreaching ambitions, a bold experiment in art cinema that became confusingly entangled with Britpop’s more heteronormative retro-nostalgia pageant just as it ran out of steam.
From a 2018 viewpoint, it makes more sense to approach Velvet Goldmine as a glam-rock concept album in film form rather than as a period drama about the glam era. “The idea of doing a gritty naturalistic film about glam rock is absurd,” Haynes explained in 1998. “My challenge to myself was to try and apply a lot of the language that I identified in my favourite glam-rock music to a narrative context, which basically meant doing away with a naturalistic approach and elevating this notion of fiction and artifice.”
Since Bowie’s shock death in 2016, Velvet Goldmine feels more than ever like a fascinating addition to his rich cultural legacy, rather than a brazen attempt to cash in on it. In recent years, the late rocker’s seminal significance as a pioneering queer icon, identity-blurring superstar and self-created artwork has been subject to intense scrutiny in scholarly books and articles, documentaries and museum exhibitions. Haynes was ahead of the curve, unpacking those dense textual layers long before Bowie Studies became an emerging academic discipline.
Of course, Velvet Goldmine will never be a definitive final statement about Bowie or glam rock generally. But it still stands up as a gloriously ambitious response to both, a dazzling tapestry of lies that reveals a deeper truth. It remains a kaleidoscopic cult classic, a gateway drug to a liberating polysexual wonderland of the imagination, a crash course for the ravers.