“It’s funny how beautiful people look when they’re walking out the door”
What if Citizen Kane wasn’t about Charlie’s Foster Kane but instead the interviewer tasked with speaking to those in Kane’s life, mining for the meaning of “Rosebud”? This is sort of where director Todd Haynes (co-written with James Lyons) begins his fictional account of Brit glam rocker Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Velvet Goldmine deals with this enigma of a star and his tumultuous life before fading completely out of the public consciousness following a misguided stunt. (Or was it a carefully planned escape?) We hear from his former manager, ex-wife, and kindred spirit in garage rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) to discover what drove him to obscurity. As each remembers, though, so too does journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale): a man whose formidable years paralleled it all.
This doesn’t mean that the film isn’t also about Slade, Wild, or Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland as the entry point into the mystery and connective tissue to the storybook prologue featuring a young Oscar Wilde). It’s about each of them alongside Stuart because it’s ultimately about the struggle of finding your identity as a gay man in the early 70s. This film depicts its loosely based on real musicians tale (Slade for David Bowie, Wild for Iggy Pop/Lou Reed) at a time where homosexuality was still seen as wrong (I say as though too many don’t still believe this today). It also shows us the reality of kids embracing unique images and allowing themselves to embrace their differences because they finally weren’t alone. The “fad” of bisexuality begins.
But while some joined the movement because it became hip, others joined because their survival depended on it. We don’t learn how or when Wild came out to the world, only that his overtly-sexualized concerts featuring glitter, adventurous hands, and nudity introduced his unabashed freedom to live life without fear so that Slade’s eyes could open and absorb. It’s the epitome of art and pop culture providing an outlet and example that anything is possible if you’re true to yourself. If someone famous can do it, so can I. An important moment in Slade’s life—at the time married to a woman (Toni Collette‘s Mandy) and rocking the hippie vibe with long hair and a singer/songwriter sound—it’s monumental to those young souls dancing in the crowd.
We know from the beginning that Stuart was just such a reveler running wild to be front and center for Slade’s latest tour’s final show. Being a fan doesn’t get to the heart of his admiration, though. We only learn that a decade later when his New York Herald boss assigns him a filler piece telling the world where Brian Slade ended up. Stuart isn’t keen on the idea, believing the task fell to him simply because he was the resident Brit on staff. Or maybe we believe that’s causing his frustration because there’s no reason to doubt him. As he begins meeting people such as the manager Slade left behind for fame (Michael Feast‘s Cecil) and Mandy, however, the flicker of recognition lights up his eyes.
Haynes does an expert job making us care for every single one of his leading trio despite two being characters easily despised. Bale’s Stuart is initially a known commodity that we want to find answers because he’s likeable and honest. To us he’s merely our stand-in at first—an interviewer to coax out the details pertaining to the men we really came to learn about. He’s so deceptively written that we hardly notice the moment when he suddenly becomes the film’s centerpiece. What we believed would always be Slade and his volatility was merely a smokescreen—the prototype of the disenfranchised soul seeking answers that Stuart replaces via his own awakening. Where we don’t relate to the coke-addled jerks, Stuart’s everyman is you and I.
Even so, we cannot hate Slade or Wild. Sure they are flamboyantly ostentatious because they can afford to be so, but they are human beings underneath it all too. They were young boys who didn’t know what was happening to them; who saw an outlet through music to show the world their true selves and be lauded rather than abused. The power celebrity afforded them does ultimately balloon out of control to the outside world—and inside if you ask Mandy whose carefree attitude gradually disappears when the reality of her new place in Brian’s life reveals itself—and the slippery slope between freedom and alteration appears. Identity and image become so warped that the purpose to relinquish societal constraints is lost to extravagance’s crescendo. Image replaces self.
It’s heartbreaking to watch Brian and Curt’s relationship evolve and implode because excess ruins what could have been perfection. Anger and ego make way towards guilt and regret as time passes to show emotional truth in retrospect. But just as they ruin each other, devastating their steely demeanors and crass bullishness to expose vulnerable souls beneath, they embolden Stuart from afar and without knowledge. The best part of Velvet Goldmine—besides the killer soundtrack often sung by Meyers and McGregor themselves when Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke isn’t enlisted to do the honors—is Bale’s Stuart watching TV with his parents as these rock idols are shown. The way he points and screams, “That’s me!” is as amazing a revelation as his father’s silence is a deafening defeat.
The acting’s stellar right down to Eddie Izzard sleazing things up as Slade’s success-fulfilling manager Jerry Devine. Meyers and McGregor each lend their pop stars the nuance to also be human even if just for a second in the calm before their storms. And Bale traverses youthful exuberance and adult caution with skill. Because while he originally appears cold and clinical in the 80s as though by default, despite his excitement in the 70s, we learn it’s merely him being guarded as he re-enters a world long since forgotten that he played a much larger role in than we’d ever imagine. To someone like him this sexual awakening as depicted means killing his former self to be reborn. For others that second life becomes a lie too.