While some gay men's fantasies center around muscled jocks, cops or cowboys, Todd Haynes' would seem to be of a slightly more arcane bent. In Velvet Goldmine, he glorifies the glam-rock stars of the '70s, as personified by his piquantly intertwined lead characters, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). The film consciously apes the structure of Citizen Kane, being an investigation into the life of Slade, who staged his own mid-performance assassination which effectively ended his career. Brit journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) himself sets out on a journey of rediscovery, having been entranced by Slade's bedizened image and music in his youth.
The film must be accounted one of the visual treats of the year, as Haynes and a savvy production team recreate swinging '70s London in all of its mascara'ed, feather boa'ed androgynous excess. All the right tropes are in place: the raucous press conferences, glitzy photo shoots, orgiastic parties and, especially, the incendiary onstage cavortings. It begins as a mouthwateringly alluring romp, but unhappily degenerates into aimlessness and repetition after the first 40 minutes. It's severely script-challenged. Haynes attempts to artily imbue the material with a larger metaphysical/historical sense by invoking symbolic shooting stars and the spirits of the likes of Oscar Wilde and other foppish antecedents. He spikes his screenplay with fancy aphorisms and bitchy epigrams that wear thin in lieu of any meatier exchange between the characters. (Examples: 'There's suffering at the birth of a child and at the birth of a star'; 'The curves of your lips rewrite history'; 'Rock and roll's a prostitute-it should be tarted up.') The heavy-handed irony palls. Haynes rehashes the speeded-up sex sequence from Kubrick's Clockwork Orange, as well as his own teasing Barbie doll play from his notoriously unreleased The Karen Carpenter Story. There are fab set-pieces galore, but they never coalesce into anything coherent or really involving. There are a multitude of scenes featuring sexy young things, breathlessly dashing through London streets, all gotten up to look like their idols, reminiscent of Richard Lester's kooky-mod work in his '60s Beatles films. But what Velvet Goldmine really calls up is the over-decorated, desperately 'literary' work of Albert Lewin (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman), as well as Ken Russell's overblown The Boy Friend (1970), which also lavishly recreated an era with sets and gowns that just lay inertly on the screen.
One can certainly understand Slade's instant attraction to McGregor's pleasingly uninhibited Wild, a devastating cross between Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain (whom he uncannily resembles), especially in his first number, which has him doffing leather trou for the delectation of all. They meet and mingle in a titillating fashion reminiscent of Angela Bowie's infamous memoir of life with husband David and Mick Jagger. But, after all the teasing and trysting, one is left with nothing but a glittering husk. Indeed, at times one is hard-pressed to differentiate between these two petulant, attitudinous, snake-hipped rock archangels. Turquoise-coiffed Rhys Meyers is as poutingly pretty as can be, but isn't given enough scripted material to truly flesh out his character. It's just endless costume changes and highly similar splashy performance moments. The songs, many of them pastiches of old glam-rock anthems, are trite in the extreme, all delivered in the same whiningly nasal manner. This decidedly whitebread genre of music, with its self-conscious narcissism and mythologizing, has a somewhat limited appeal to begin with. (Additionally, David Bowie evidently was unwilling to part with any of the rights to his songs.) The wan quality of these sequences is even more bewildering when one considers the fact that R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe is executive producer here.
What emotion wells up feels highly patented, be it Slade's drug-induced alienation or Stuart's pain-ridden nostalgia. Rounding out the cast are a host of interesting performers who simply don't have enough to do. The always vivid Toni Collette seems raring to deliver the definitive portrait of a swiftly disillusioned rock wife. Again, her ensembles are richly detailed; her character as written, is not. Eddie Izzard weighs in as a slimy manager, but the performance is little more than a clichd cartoon. If the film has any salutary effect at all, it will be to inspire a new generation of gays (and some straights) to the kind of freedom of expression that held such ravishing sway 20 years ago, and show them there's more to masculinity than ripped abs, buzz cuts and circuit parties.