During the thrilling opening credits of Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, smiling British teenyboppers chase a new generation of dandified rock royalty through the streets of London, as the soundtrack bombards us with the jubilant tumult of Brian Eno’s 1973 ”Needles in the Camel’s Eye.” That song, with its jangly synthetic din, its chorus of male voices chanting and rising and falling on top of one another, seems to give form to some long-suppressed ecstasy that has suddenly burst into the sunlight. That’s what Velvet Goldmine is about: a spirit that broke free in early-’70s rock & roll — but one that also had to break free from rock & roll.
Haynes, the brilliantly audacious director of Safe (1995) and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1989), spins an elegant fantasia out of two mythical — and thinly fictionalized — youth-cult antiheroes. Pouty, flamboyant Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the film’s David Bowie figure, starts out as a failed hippie but repackages himself as a polymorphous (or is it just polyester?) intergalactic mannequin; with his playfully head-spinning glitter-trash aesthetic, he becomes the poster queen for a new, subversive celebration of sexual ambiguity. His American counterpart, and an obvious gloss on Iggy Pop, is Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), a madly wasted proto-punk visionary who outdoes Jim Morrison by performing in black leather pants and with a nude torso, using nihilism and noise to explode the counterculture from within.
On the surface, these two characters — one a grand poseur, the other as raw as anarchy — couldn’t be more different. What fuses them, in a word, is sex. As the film presents it, glam rock, with its gay-side-of-Carnaby Street haberdashery, marked the pivotal moment when the free-love homilies of the ’60s gave way to something wilder and (perhaps) truer: the dizzy realization that sexual freedom meant blurring the certainties of gender itself. The bisexual-but-married Slade and the I’ll-try-anything dynamo hunk Wild become partners, in music and in bed. Their relationship is a metaphor for what the sci-fi peacockery of glam, with its cabaret flash and panache, was really all about: a merging — and transcending — of male and female spirits.
What makes Velvet Goldmine fascinating, but also rather detached, is that the relationship never quite becomes more than a metaphor. Utilizing a Citizen Kane-like investigative structure, with Christian Bale as a journalist looking into Slade’s faked onstage assassination and subsequent disappearance, the film is an eccentric hybrid of pop opera and surreal essay. The performances of Rhys Meyers and, especially, McGregor are eerie surface pantomimes, but Haynes never gets inside these two as individuals, and on some level you sense that he doesn’t want to. When the two break up, so does glam rock — just like that. (Was the revolution just a fashion show, after all?) Still, as a filmmaker, Haynes is beholden to the glory of images, and he turns them into narcotic poetry. The videos for Slade’s songs are wicked satirical homages to Bowie’s plasticized genius, and Haynes orchestrates the music, a blend of period nuggets and newly composed tributes, like a cooler, brainier Ken Russell. Velvet Goldmine is no masterpiece, but, at its best, it’s a ravishing rock dream. B+