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Week 79 | Velvet Goldmine (1998) and Viva Nueva! (2001)

I was originally planning to write two separate entires about these two very different albums.  They have little to do with one another.  “Viva Nueva!” is an album by the band, Rustic Overtones on which Bowie contributes to two songs, “Sector Z” and “Man Without a Mouth.”  Throughout this project, I have considered any album with at least two songs on which Bowie contributed to be a Bowie album, so “Viva Nueva!” meets that criteria.  “Velvet Goldmine,” the soundtrack of the 1998 Todd Haynes film does not.  Nonetheless that album is far more of a Bowie album in spirit.

I am not terribly drawn to “Viva Nueva!”  The album has a lot of music, but not a lot of Bowie.  Bowie is prominent in, “Sector Z,” but basically speaks rather than sings his part of the song.  I can barely make him out in, “Man Without a Mouth.”  So I don’t have much more to write about this album.

You can barely make out the real Bowie on, “Velvet Goldmine,” either, but the soundtrack includes the Lou Reed song, “Satellite of Love,” which features Bowie singing backup, so his voice is on the album.  Interestingly, the part of the song featuring Bowie’s voice is not in the movie.  No actual Bowie song, not even the obscure Bowie song for which the movie was named, and no hint of Bowie’s voice appears in the movie, and that is significant.

The movie, “Velvet Goldmine,” is a fictionalized bio move about Bowie, mostly during his glam rock period.  Just in case anyone familiar with Bowie was unclear that the movie is really about Bowie, it contains the disclaimer, “Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nonetheless be played at maximum volume,” which of course was based on the Ziggy Stardust liner notes.  Names are changed and some characters are composites, but really the film doesn’t deviate from actual history more than similar dramatized biographical films.  

To my eyes, “Velvet Goldmine,” set the pattern followed by, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (about Freddy Mercury) and, “Rocket Man” (about Elton John).  Each movie focuses on a flamboyant gay rock star, mostly during the 1970s.  Each has a female love interest with whom he grows distant as he embraces his homosexuality.  Each dumps a manager for another manager who appeals to the rocker’s ambition, but in the end is out for himself.  Each has a drug problem.  Each movie has gay sex scenes.  Each features a lot of music.  The main difference is that, “Velvet Goldmine” includes no music by Bowie, while the other two contain plenty of songs by their films’ subjects.

What’s amazing about, “Velvet Goldmine,” and specifically the soundtrack, is that it doesn’t matter.  Spiritually, the soundtrack is a Bowie album.  Three types of songs appear on the soundtrack— original glam era songs, like “Virginia Plain” by Roxy Music and “Diamond Meadows” by T. Rex, covers of songs from that era by fictional bands from the movie, such as the Stooges’ “T.V. Eye” by the Ewan McGregor-fronted Stooges-like fictional band, “Wilde Rattz” and the Roxy Music song, “2HB” performed by the fictional, “Venus in Furs.”  The album also contains totally original music, performed by fictional bands in the movie, that sound very much like they could have come out of the early 1970s, such as “The Whole Shebang” and a song a particularly like, “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon,” which overtly evokes Ziggy Stardust. 

Its all a little confusing.  I heard some of the old songs for the first time in this movie, and thus was not (with a few of them still are not) sure if they were originals.  The movie is intentionally confusing as well.  Most of the characters are not only based on actual people (or composite characters based on multiple people), but their names borrow from glam rockers, or songs, or bands.  Is the Iggy Pop character’s name, “Curt Wild,” a composite of Kurt Cobain (McGregor, portraying the character looks more like Kurt Cobain than Iggy Pop) and Oscar Wilde?  (And yes, I know Kurt Cobain was not from the glam era). Is the Bowie character, “Brian Slade,” a combination of Brian Eno and the band, “Slade?”  “Jerry Devine” is clearly based on Bowie’s manager, Tony Defries.  Even the sets are meant to evoke images from the time, for instance there’s a sex scene on a roof amongst chimney stacks, which any Bowie fan knows are loved by the Jean Genie.  And so it goes. 

The ultimate result is a pretty unique compilation album, that stands up with or without familiarity with either the actual movie or, for that matter any knowledge of David Bowie.  Yet for me, its hard not to listen to it and not think of Bowie.  That’s a beast trick that is not achieved by “Viva Nueva!” despite Bowie’s actual presence on that album.

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