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Film Review: Velvet Goldmine

Velvet Goldmine (1998; Directed by Todd Haynes)

It’s entirely possible that, if I cared a whit for the immense cultural importance of glam-rock and if I had seen this film before the infinitely superior but extremely similar I’m Not There, I may have felt a little better about Velvet Goldmine. The artfully-indirect biopic sprinkled with eerily committed performances and incredibly arch faux-losiphical quips about the deep significance of rock music thing seems to be Todd Haynes’ go-to formula, and the manner in which he approaches both this film and its much-better twin from a decade later is so similar that it reduces the creative profile of both films as a result.

Haynes’ style goes beyond a mere methodology; he repeats the same elements almost point-by-point. Both the Dylan bio and the veiled portrayal of Bowie offered here cover humble origins, the difficulties of hipness, the effects of unraveling relationships, the square cluelessness of the press (these scenes in both films come off almost like exact copies of each other), glib dismissal of the artists’ “commercial” period, behind-the-scenes madness, and ornately-constructed musical-fantasy sequences.

Not only does Haynes say what he has to say about these figures in precisely the same way, he seems to have precisely the same thing to say: pop idols are elusive types who inevitably get lost in the images they create to make themselves more than themselves. This is not a glib or an incorrect observation, necessarily, but it’s simply explored more entertainingly and insightfully in I’m Not There than it is here.

It’s too bad that Velvet Goldmine comes off as merely okay, because Haynes has unreal visual talents that seem largely wasted on hipster-pleasing hyperbole about essentially superficial “art”. His actors almost make you believe the cleverer-than-thou nonsense they’re compelled to spout, though. Talents as rich as those of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (who is lost when not asked to portray tightly-packed determined detachment, which fortunately he is here), Toni Collette (outstanding, as always) and Ewan McGregor (totally out there at all times, a performance of joyously reckless abandon) can make up for a lot of misplaced ambition on the part of a filmmaker, and they largely do.

And the oft-praised Christian Bale, who stole a sizable chunk of I’m Not There from the overhyped Cate Blanchett’s impersonation of peak rock star Dylan, grounds the film beautifully. He nails not only the raging fanboy and wannabe-scene-kid’s naive desire to be accepted, but also the brooding regret of a grown professional forced to revisit his largely shameful youthful dalliances. Bale manages to overcome the scriptual reality that his entire part is an obvious homage to the faceless reporter figure from Citizen Kane. Next to the borderline-inhuman beautiful people he idolized (Haynes makes a vague inference that they were planted by aliens, or so exceptional as to be equivalent to extraterrestrials), Bale is frail, awkward, and real. If only the rest of the film felt less like a fashionably shallow exercise and more like that.

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Categories: Film, Music, Reviews
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