“ We set out to change the world… ended up just changing ourselves.
– What’s wrong with that?
– Nothing, if you don’t look at the world.”
I already mentioned Velvet Goldmine in the article I wrote about my experience at the 70th Locarno Film Festival when I got to watch the movie during the Histoire(s) du Cinéma retrospective dedicated to director Todd Haynes, who was being awarded the Pardo d’Onore Manor prize. I loved watching the movie, and it instantly became one of my all-time favorite.
According to a GQ article, Velvet Goldmine has become over the years “a cult classic and a touchstone of New Queer Cinema”. The movie embodies the true essence of glam rock; it is set in 1970s London, depicting the glam rock music scene of the 70s and 80s and the general vibes of that era in a very realistic and touching way. It is also enriched with references to Oscar Wilde, as the movie starts with one of the first sequences showing the legendary author and poet as a kid stating that he wants to be a pop star when he grows up. Some of Wilde’s famous quotes are also repeated by the characters throughout the movie, meant to convey the idea that Wilde could be considered the forefather of a musical generation that wants to get rid of certain taboos.
A young Christian Bale plays the part of reporter Arthur Stewart, who is trying to find out what happened to Brian Slade, a rock star from his youth who disappeared from the scenes about a decade earlier, when he killed off his alter ego Maxwell Demon. When Stewart is assigned to write a piece about Slade, he comes into contact with various people that used to be part of the rocker’s life, like his former agent, his ex-wife (the latter played by Tony Collette) and the wild American rockstar Curt Wild (played by Ewan McGregor), who happened to be involved in a romantic relationship with Slade back in the days. Stewart, along with the audience, gets shown a different side to Slade’s personality and he can be seen not only as someone who seems arrogant and pretentious but also as someone who has a vulnerable side to him as well. In certain scenes you really get to witness his being human and needing love, much like everyone else.
There are many elements that make Velvet Goldmine a great movie, including the make-up and costumes (it was nominated for Best Costume Design at the 1999 Academy Awards); Brian Slade’s character is played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in what is perhaps one of the best performances of his career and his figure is very reminiscent of David Bowie and his alter ego Ziggy Stardust during the best and most productive decade in terms of glam rock music. The fact that I’m a big David Bowie fan probably contributed to my liking Velvet Goldmine so much, but the movie would be appealing for fans of iconic musicians like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed as well.
Velvet Goldmine is a movie about freedom, stardom and the process of creating something beautiful; it is also about decadence and it does a great job in showing the sense of pain and loss that inevitably comes with it. It made me nostalgic for an era that I didn’t get to witness, as I was born in the 90s, when the glam rock period was long gone.
The music in this movie is wonderful, especially for the songs that Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor get to sing because they are both unbelievably talented and I plan to purchase the original soundtrack on vinyl very soon. There are also original songs from the ’70s by artists like Brian Eno and Roxy Music.
I love this movie as a whole, not only for the story but also for the performances, the set design, make-up and costumes because they all make it a very one-of-a-kind piece of cinema. I rewatched Velvet Goldmine a couple of nights ago after not seeing it for more than five years; it has stayed in my mind for all this time and I have often felt the need to revisit it (thank you Amazon Prime Video, because if it weren’t for their streaming service I would not have been able to find it anywhere else, since the DVD is hard to find in Italy and some rare copies retail for very high prices).
I am aware that Velvet Goldmine might not be for everyone. It deals with themes like homosexuality, nudity and drugs in a very unconventional way, there is drama in it as well and some scenes involving these decadent icons do have an overwhelming feeling to them, but I just loved the flowing of the story, all the pop culture stylish extravaganza and the beauty of its cinematography. There is something to the movie that makes you feel as if you were part of the story while it is unfolding and I feel that with a second viewing you really get to appreciate the meanings behind the plot more deeply. It is truly a wonderful movie filled not only with music, but also with literature and art.
OTHER MOVIES TO WATCH: I struggled to find movies that are similar to Velvet Goldmine because, while it focuses primarily on music, it is also quite introspective (almost philosophical in a way) and has a dream-like quality to it, which makes it a very unique movie in its genre.
If you would like to watch other movies that are great at portraying homosexuality in a meaningful way, I would suggest Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” (2011) because it has great performances as well; even though he is primarily a fashion designer and this was his first movie I really appreciate him as a director, too. At the same time, John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001), which is about a gender-queer punk rock singer, would be another great option (the movie was originally a theatre rock musical and it also got a revival on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre back in 2014).
I think Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” (2006) is a movie with some elements that reminded me of Velvet Goldmine, especially because of its originality and excellent soundtrack.
I was also recommended another movie directed by Todd Haynes; it is a Bob Dylan biopic from 2007 titled “I’m Not There” and I will be watching it soon.
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