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Hooked to the Silver Screen I 20 I Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Having reviewed Stardust last week, a fictionalized movie about David Bowie that didn’t have the rights to his music, I couldn’t help but think of Velvet Goldmine, which in that simple respect could be described the same way. The two movies even cover roughly similar time periods in Bowie’s life– from about the time of “Space Oddity” through the Ziggy period. Velvet Goldmine is a much better movie, and director Todd Haynes turned the seeming problem of doing a movie about Bowie without his music into an asset.

How did he do that? Well, to begin with, he changed all the names. The Bowie character is named Brian Slade, played by Jonathan Rhys Myers. A character based on Iggy Pop, Curt Wild, is played by Ewan McGregor. And so on. It’s a stellar cast that includes Eddie Izzard, Toni Collette and Christian Bale as Arthur Stuart, a reporter who, as far as I can tell, is not analogous to a real person. In some ways, the story is really Arthur’s. Arthur finds inspiration and freedom in the glam rock of the early 70s, only to have lost that sense by the time of the drab, conformist 80s. He tells the story of Brian Slade in a conspicuously Citizen Kane style, but with a lot more color.

Many of the characters in the movie are either directly based on real people, or are composites. Many of the incidents and some of the dialogue are based on true events. Haynes had fun with the fictionalized names, too mixing and matching the names of real glam-era performers to create new names for the fictionalized characters. Part of the fun of watching this movie is trying to disentangle it. Actually, that’s a big part of the fun of watching this movie— but it’s a feature that’s only available to those who know something about Bowie’s history and the glam era. So, this movie isn’t for everyone.

Another reason it isn’t for everyone is that it is a gay love story. Unlike the character actually called David Bowie in Stardust, Brian Slade is especially gay. His rise and fall is about his love affair with Curt. As far as I can tell, Bowie did not actually have a love affair with Iggy Pop, and this is where Haynes compresses stories having to do with different real people into the movie’s storyline. For instance, there’s a kiss scene that’s based off a photo apparently showing Bowie and Lou Reed about to kiss, and the Angie Bowie character (called Mandy Slade in the movie) tells about catching Brian and Curt in bed. Mandy uses language similar to how Angie wrote about an allegedly real incident about Bowie and Mick Jagger. Though Angie’s story was disputed, which brings up an interesting question about truth and reality. (I’ll save that for another post).

But this brings me to one of the movie’s other strengths, which is that it’s liberated from the confines of an actual biopic. If the real Bowie and Iggy didn’t have a love affair, neither did they have a breakup, and the breakup that didn’t happen also didn’t set in motion the end of the glam rock era. The real Bowie “killed” Ziggy but in the movie, Brian fakes his own assassination, leading to fan backlash before he disappeared from public view. While the real Bowie was making some of his best music in the late 70s (there’s a quick allusion to Curt making “his Berlin record”), Brian simply vanished, only to secretly re-emerge as Tommy Stone, played by an altogether different actor. Stone, a supporter of “President Reynolds” (think, President Reagan), is the embodiment of everything wrong with the 80s. The whole color scheme of the 80s is drab and industrial. Nobody is happy and nobody is living their best lives.

Arthur’s great discovery at the end of the movie is that Tommy Stone, based on the Let’s Dance era Bowie, is really Brian Slade. I think the point is to remind us that despite the oppressive conformity of the larger society, which might tempt us with steady jobs and stadium shows, there’s a more colorful, more expressive individual that resides still within us. Also it’s a way for Todd Haynes to say that he really didn’t like 80s-era Bowie!

Well, Bowie didn’t like this movie, either. Bowie disparaged the movie at the time. I remember somewhere seeing that he said that Meyers was good looking, but that the movie was “gay porn” (though I can’t find this comment today). More importantly, he refused Haynes the rights to use his music. This ended up being a good thing. It gave Haynes the motivation to mix up the soundtrack with songs by other glam acts from the era, a few covers as well as some original songs by the legitimate band Shudder to Think as well as the made-up supergroup, The Venus in Furs, which is the Spiders from Mars-like band backing Brian Slade (named for a Velvet Underground song…by the way, the movie is named for an obscure Bowie song). Anyway, the soundtrack is great. I very much like the “new” songs (they aren’t new anymore) and I have frequently listened to the soundtrack CD. So, good.

I feel like there’s much more to say about this movie, but the bottom line is that for me, it’s a triumph. We’re still waiting for a genuine Bowie biopic that includes his own music. This is not that, but as a stand-alone piece of art it should, as the pre-credit legend reminds us, be played at maximum volume.

Good use of Bowie?

This is an excellent use of Bowie— for inspiration! It is easy to imagine the movie being much worse squeezed more within the confines of actual historical events. Also, there’s a kind of novelty fun to seeing Ewan McGregor perform two Stooges songs (he is the only actor I can think of who has managed to cover both Bowie and Iggy in different movies), but, talented though he is, the originals are better. Whoever might have been singing “Ziggy Stardust” or “Space Oddity” likely would have been trying to imitate rather than interpret Bowie, and that could have produced an inferior result to getting to hear some very good new songs. The spirt of Bowie’s glam-era iteration is alive and well in this movie, even if Bowie himself is not.

I’m giving it four out of four Bowies. Of all the movies that have appeared in this series, this is the one I’ve watched most often. Bowie himself might not have liked it, but I think it is great.


And to see where it fits in the ranking summary, click here.

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