Saturday, January 05, 2008

Film Review: Velvet Goldmine

In preparation for watching Todd Haynes second crack at the music biopic that's not really a biopic, the Dylan-tastic I'm Not There, I decided to check out this earlier attempt, as Haynes tries to tell the story of glam rock using characters that are most definitely NOT David Bowie and most definitely NOT Iggy Pop.

Okay, maybe they are a bit like those characters, but more on them later. The story follows the attempts of a British journalist (Christian Bale) to track down 70's pop legend Brian Slade who went missing years before following his apparently fake shooting at a concert. By interviewing those who knew Slade during those years, he tries to piece together the story of what happened and where Slade has since disappeared to, all the while offering up insights into Bale's childhood as a fan of Slade's work and the impact that the music of the era has in helping him come to terms with his own homosexuality. The narrative structure is essentially the same as that used for Citizen Kane and it works to great effect, offering up a mystery which quickly becomes unimportant as we are sucked into the heady world of 70's glam.

The Bowie stand-in (with a bit of Bolan thrown in for good measure) is played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers who, whilst a bit wooden at times, gives a pretty good performance as Slade who is initially a folk-singer and, after experimenting with drugs, takes to writing songs about the fictional rock star Maxwell Demon and becomes friends, and lovers, with Curt Wild (Ewan MacGregor), lead singer of influential Detroit garage band The Rats. MacGregor doesn't quite convince as Wild, except when he's on stage; when he performs with The Rats or is thrashing around in the studio, he embodies the Iggy-like character totally, getting the energy and mannerisms down perfectly, but off-stage he's a bit bull and its to the film's benefit that most of his involvement is confined to singing, shouting and orgy montages.

Bale is the real star of the film and grounds the narrative of the film, preventing it from becoming too far out. There are moments where it does go astray but the whole thing is such a fun, decadent ride that it's hard to care when such lapses do occur. Also, if you've ever wanted to see Batman fuck Obi-Wan outside of slash-fic then you'll be set.

The film takes several liberties with the truth because the filmmakers couldn't get the rights to use Bowie's songs, but they're more concerned with capturing the mood of the time and, for want of a less pretentious phrase, the essence of glam rock, and the film is largely successful at that. There's a great sense of place and time being recreated and the use of both songs from the time and covers from various members of Placebo, Pulp, Sonic Youth and others adds to this, creating a really great soundtrack. The film is also littered with references to bands of the era and offers little extra rewards for people who are fans.

A sprawling, wandering work that is very enjoyable and well worth a watch.