Wendy (Brisbane, Queensland, Australia)
Basing Velvet Goldmine on David Bowie makes sense but is also problematic. Bowie – or Ziggy – is undoubtedly the most influential and identifiable artist of the Glam era but he is unrepresentative of Glam because he was not a f-fad and did not f-fade away.
Bowie was a genius who, in my opinion, belongs on the same hallowed ground as The Beatles and Elvis. He was the ultimate rock star but he broke two cardinal rock star rules. Firstly, he moved on from Ziggy whether fans were ready or not. He derailed the successful Ziggy bandwagon at its peak. Secondly, despite rock star excesses, Bowie refused to die a premature tawdry death. Because of his longevity, his musical legacy contains dreck among the masterpieces.
However, Bowie was not a spent force after Glam. Fans may debate whether Ziggy was the pinnacle of Bowie’s creativity but what Bowie produced after Glam – Young Americans and Station to Station, for example – are evidence of artistic achievement and growth.
Bearing this in mind, Velvet Goldmine is based on Ziggy not Bowie. In a sense, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is channelling Brian Slade channelling Maxwell Demon channelling Bowie channelling Ziggy. So many degrees of separation.
I was confused when the movie started. I expected McGregor to be cast as Bowie because he receives top billing and Slade is the more significant role. I wondered if McGregor was offered the role but wisely turned it down. I wondered if Rhys Meyers’ lack of subtlety was an attempt to upstage McGregor. Although he looks the part, Rhys Meyers’ arrogance seems inherent in his personality rather than Brian Slade’s: “Look at me, I’m playing Bowie.” Ewan McGregor is more convincing as Iggy Pop but calling him Curt Wild was distracting. Yes, Glam era Iggy looked like that but so too did Kurt Cobain. I expected Curt to time travel to the 1990s for a rendition of Smells like Teen Spirit at any moment.
The plot takes too many liberties. Perhaps Bowie and Iggy were involved in a sexual relationship but was it as pivotal as the plot implies? In addition, the plot leaves Arthur Stuart [Christian Bale] undeveloped. Was his encounter with Curt Wild a one night stand? Was it sexual experimentation or was he, in fact, gay? When and why did he leave the UK for The States? How and why did he become a journalist? Arthur ties the plot together but we learn virtually nothing about him.
Brian Slade’s fake assassination and subsequent disappearance are also implausible. Artists – Nick Drake and Syd Barrett, for example – do indeed retreat from public life but rarely disappear. The fact Slade’s fans reject and abandon him after the ruse is absurd. Many would regard it as brilliant artistic expression and redouble their devotion.
I also find scenarios where a character is rendered unrecognisable by a thin disguise insulting. Are we to believe a ten year absence, exaggerated bouffant and white suit completely conceals Tommy Stone’s true identity? Moreover, would an artist of Bowie’s stature condescend to become a mediocre latter-day crooner? Slade even goes unrecognised at the Glam rock celebratory concert. Seriously? Imagine Bowie going anywhere incognito after the 1970s.
Velvet Goldmine does have a redeeming quality. Its Soundtrack demonstrates the enduring appeal of Glam music. In my opinion, Glam does not receive the respect it deserves. Great Glam songs are timeless. Steve Harley’s Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me), which plays over the movie’s closing credits, is as compelling as it was in the 1970s. T-Rex’s Children of the Revolution also comes to mind as a brilliant song in any genre in any era. The fact the songs survive the caprices of time is commendable. Other artists do not fare as well but that is true of any era.
In the end, my objection to Velvet Goldmine is precisely because it portrays Bowie as indistinct from Mud, Showaddywaddy or a host of Glam bands who were massively popular and successful in the 1970s but made no lasting impression. Ziggy was so much more than a Glam poseur and Bowie was so much more than Ziggy. Bowie absorbed influences from everywhere but was an innovator rather than a derivative imitator.
Writers and producers are entitled to dramatic licence. But if a movie is based on a real person and there is no fidelity to their biography, what’s the point? Why use Bowie as the template for Slade then drain the essence and marrow from the character? If Velvet Goldmine was based on a lesser artist, I would not have the same criticism. Marc Bolan, for example, would have been a better choice. No one can predict what Bolan might have done but it is evident his star had dimmed at the time of his untimely death in 1977. Thus, forever ossified in the Glam era, he was a Glam performer in a truer sense than Bowie.
Perhaps my expectations are at fault and I am projecting my own values. Admittedly I hold music themed movies and novels to a higher standard and cut them less slack. Yet watching the movie, I thought if they upped the camp “to eleven” it could have been a hilarious parody. Glam rock is begging for the full-blown Spinal Tap treatment. But as a dramatisation or quasi-biographical movie, it fails on many levels. Ultimately, Bowie deserves better.