Todd Haynes' "Safe" remains one of the decade's masterpieces - serene, mysterious, unyielding. "Velvet Goldmine" is just as smart, just as rewarding to the attentive viewer, yet its surfaces are far more alluring.
A riff on the personalities of the 1970s glam rock era, "Goldmine" is freakishly busy in its dynamic welter of pop history, and its affair between two characters, Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) and Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who have their likenesses to real-life figures such as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and David Bowie. Haynes (photo, with Rhys-Meyers) describes his uncommonly accomplished $8 million film as "an act of thievery, which glam rock is as well."
There is a Wildean verbal wit throughout, and Haynes, who opens the film with a vignette of Wilde as a child, admits to using Wilde's style of observation throughout. "A lot of them are direct lifts. What I did was retrace the steps by which these ideas were put together by Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, David Bowie at the time. I took it a step further after reading the amazing and strange intersections of Oscar Wilde's life in the [Richard] Ellman biography [of Wilde] and David Bowie's life and how they each constructed themselves from the outside in, adopted the pose before the work."
As with "Safe," Haynes is suspicious of traditional notions of psychological depth. "The sense of depth as we know it in film is completely constructed, even at a visual level. 'Velvet Goldmine' is in some ways like an opera or a musical in that the story is not complex. We've seen it before, it's almost mythic or gestural. The emotion is really more found in the music and the spectacle. That's how you have an emotional connection to musicals you see - it's not in story or complexity of character or in the gritty realism of the scene."
"Velvet Goldmine" is equally striking for how the story unfolds in the mind afterwards, once the barrage of imagery has ceased, much as it does when the characters become absences in each others' memories. "I always knew the emotional connection would be about how the main character touched the lives of others and moved on and how they struggled with the aftermath," Haynes says. "He doesn't really become a character until he's gone."
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