Whatever happened to the teenage dream? In defence of Velvet Goldmine
Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ new film set in the early 1970s’ UK glam-rock scene, seems to have polarised opinion amongst rock and movie hacks like no other film in recent memory. The reviews have either been glowing like the brightest star in the galaxy or reeking of musty old second-hand record shops. Oddly, the most scathing reviews have come from the music press, or are at least - as in the case of one popular film mag’s review - written by part-time music journalists.
Having finally seen the film myself and fallen in love with almost everything about it - the performances, the story, the music, the look - the music press’s failure to get to grips with the movie worries me slightly. Well, it worries me a lot actually - enough for me to have spent the last week seriously mulling over the relationship between fans and press. There’s a delicious irony in the music press slagging off Velvet Goldmine - an irony that I’m sure isn’t lost on Haynes, its author and director. But we’ll come to that a bit later. To begin with, I’d like to tell you why Velvet Goldmine is one of the best rock ‘n’ roll movies I’ve ever seen.
Do you remember when you first got into music? It happened for me circa 1980, when my mum and dad bought me a tape recorder (one of those 1970s box-type things with a plug-in mic). My uncle took me round his house, sat me down and played me snippets from nearly every record in his collection. I sat there, nodding or shaking my head depending on whether or not I liked the track. A few days later, I was the proud owner of a box full of Motown tapes: Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, the Commodores. I’d finally got my passport. All I needed now was somewhere to go.
And go somewhere I did. By 1981, music was my life. My mono, multi-play record player and I were inseparable. I’d spend all my spare time (and there’s an awful lot of that when you’re 11) holed up in my bedroom, recording my own ‘radio programmes’ and miming to Shakin’ Stevens and Stray Cats records. My best friend and I would invent bands and record our own albums. He had Spy, I had Minefield and a solo rock ‘n’ roller called Andy Moonrock. We’d make up songs, invent instruments (elastic bands, shoe boxes, biscuit tins - you know the kind of thing) and even design album covers. As far as we were concerned, we were rock ‘n’ roll stars. Life was never going to be the same again. We hoped.
As the years went by, I became fixated on loads of bands and musicians: The Police, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, the Sex Pistols, Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses, The Beatles, The Wildhearts… Jeez, I’m almost 29 and I still find myself going totally bonkers about bands to the point where I feel completely in awe of everything they do and wish the world would disappear, leaving me and the object of my desire alone to talk about life, love and lunacy. It’s said that rock ‘n’ roll often makes people act in a far-out manner. But my own experience - both as a kid with fantasies of stardust and as an adult struggling to make sense of the world - has taught me that rock ‘n’ roll simply gives people permission to be themselves. Even if it’s just for three minutes. As the movie says, wearing a mask can sometimes be the best way of letting your true identity shine through.
If the essence of Velvet Goldmine can be boiled down to any one thing, it’s surely about that sense of liberation. That moment in the middle of a record when you’re sent tumbling head first into the bridge; when the hairs on your arm are pointing at the bedroom ceiling and you feel your chest tightening and you just wanna puke; that brief glimpse of 100 per cent pure lucidity when you suddenly see the answers to all of life’s problems and know for a fact that the only thing that matters is this exact moment and you just want it to go on forever, and for about 30 seconds it feels like it actually might. Velvet Goldmine, with its sense of loss for a time when “the whole stinking world” seemed to belong to moments like these, nails the whole rock ‘n’ roll ethos square on the head. To coin a phrase, 18 months of in-your-face glitter is worth a thousand years of dull, grey undercoat.
“But it’s fiction!” yell the music press. “It never happened like this at all!” And to them I say, well, that depends whose truth you’re looking at. By its very nature, rock ‘n’ roll creates its own myths. Was Jim Morrison really possessed by the spirit of a native American? Well, no. Would I like him to have been? Yeah, I would, quite honestly. Ideally, rock stars would come from outer space. In their own heads, I’m sure they do. And that’s what matters. Wear a decent mask and the ‘core you’ will come out of hiding to reveal more truths than you ever thought imaginable. The absolute, what-you-see-is-what-you-get truth - that boring, four-guys-on-a-stage-who-play-quite-well truth - has never mattered that much in rock ‘n’ roll. In Velvet Goldmine, the first thing you see - before Oscar Wilde being delivered to Earth via a flying saucer - is a title card proclaiming: “Although what you are about to see is fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume.” How much plainer could Haynes put it?
But still the critiques come: “But glam wasn’t as gay as this movie would like to think!” The film might paint a select picture of the movement, but Brian Slade’s yearnings for a “sexual revolution” ring perfectly true. Bowie - the main inspiration behind Slade (played with panache by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) - was the first major rock star to admit that he fancied guys as well as gals. The establishment had only just got used to the concept of free love. Was it ready to ‘tolerate’ homosexuality? As always, it was the kids who understood. Gay, straight or bi, glam allowed you to be yourself, to paint your life in bright colours, the exact colours that matched your thoughts. Is that not the truth?
There are those, of course, who bemoan the fact that the movie is kind of about Ziggy but doesn’t lay it all down like a Mojo feature. Yet Haynes never set out to make a Bowie biopic. By mixing fact and fiction, he’s produced fantasy, something that represents the whole glam movement far better than a warts ‘n’ all film about Bowie ever could. I’d argue that every rock movie ever made has been a work of fiction anyway, even those whose authors claim authenticity. Ditto for every rock book. It’s all subjective. One man’s life-changing event is another man’s “so what?”. There’s a great exchange in Velvet Goldmine when Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor’s character) speaking from the vantage point of 1984, tells Arthur (Christian Bale portraying an ex-glam fan turned journalist): “We set out to change the world and ended up… just changing ourselves.” “What’s wrong with that?” says Arthur. “Nothing!” says Curt. “If you don’t look at the world.”
Rock ‘n’ roll as personal revolution. Just about my favourite subject in the world ever. And you wonder why I dig this movie so much?
A lot of reviewers said that they found Velvet Goldmine a difficult film to enjoy because they simply couldn’t identify with any of the characters. Yet Arthur, in his ‘70s guise as a glam fan who ends up getting thrown out of his parents’ house for “bringing shame upon” them when he’s caught masturbating over a pic of Curt and Brian in a music magazine, surely represents you, me and everyone else whose life has ever been completely turned upside down by music, even if just for brief second. It’s hard to avoid an inward cheer when the young Arthur, watching a TV interview with Brian in which he talks about his bisexuality, jumps up and down excitedly and yells at the screen, “that’s me, that is!”, while his parents looks on disgustedly. And we’ve all been through scenes like the one where Arthur’s friends taunt him over his purchase of one of Brian’s records. Bale’s portrayal of Arthur has been somewhat overlooked in the rush to mention Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Slade and McGregor’s Wild, but for me, it’s one of the best in the film.
The way that Velvet Goldmine looks and sounds as though it could have actually been made in the period in which most of it is set is remarkable. There’s no MTV-style fast-cut editing of live or video material. The stunning set pieces - Brian’s tres dandy videos and the Curt Wild gig scenes - look as though they’ve come straight out of some classic-rock film archive. The way that the camera follows McGregor around, you get the impression that everything was shot very much on the spot. He falls and the camera doesn’t immediately fall with him. It races to get the shot a split second later, just as it would if filming a proper gig. McGregor, who performs his own songs in the film, says that much of the movie was one-take stuff. There was apparently little time for rehearsals, which, performance-wise, makes the movie’s triumph even more remarkable.
The soundtrack album has rarely left my stereo for the past three weeks, and without a doubt looks set to become one of my favourite LPs of 1998, mixing as it does original '70s faves (Roxy’s Virginia Plain, Lou Reed’s Satellite Of Love, Steve Harley’s Make Me Smile) with faithful covers (Roxy Music, T-Rex, The Stooges, New York Dolls) and new, original glam-style tracks (Pulp, Grant Lee Buffalo and Shudder To Think - who steal the show with the brilliant Hot One and Ballad Of Maxwell Demon).
The music press, of course, have raced to praise the album while condemning the film. That ‘delicious irony’ I talked about at the beginning? By criticising the film for the reasons I’ve mentioned - primarily the lack of (what they see as) truth, and non-identification with its characters - these reviewers are acting like the tired old establishment figures that glam itself aimed to sweep away. They’re showing themselves up to be people who I can only assume have never got rock ‘n’ roll; people who’ve obviously missed out on the life-changing part and have only ever viewed it in terms of four-guys-on-a-stage-who-play-quite-well. Nice tunes. But what was that about personal revolutions? These people are slating one of the best rock ‘n’ roll movies ever made. Why? Because it’s adventurous? Because it dares to dream? Because it’s not The Truman Show? Or do they simply not get it? What’s not to get, though? Subtext? Jeez, the message behind this movie is dangling over Tower Bridge scrawled in 30-foot high, glowing red neon letters.
It’s this simple: rock ‘n’ roll’s about brief moments in time, but it’s still a potent, freeing force. It changes people’s lives; their way of thinking; their way of being. Maybe not forever… but enough to make you believe it could. And wish it would.