Digging into "Velvet Goldmine"

After going to see Carol together a couple of weeks ago, a few friends and I decided to revisit Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998) together last weekend.  The timing proved eerie: the next morning we awoke to news that David Bowie, upon whom Goldmine’s glam-rock superstar Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is obviously based, had died. While not among my favorite Haynes films, Goldmine is packed to the gills with information—visual, historical, cultural, musical—and is never not interesting.  As a way of beginning to decide what I think about it, I’ve found it helpful to index some of the film’s key contexts and points of reference.

Glam rock/performativity/queerness.  As a film about pop music performance as a state of being, and about the power of that music to transform oneself, Velvet Goldmine anticipates the fragmented selves of Bob Dylan in Haynes’ I’m Not There.  Both films find Haynes queering the very notion of identity, eroticizing and celebrating the ever-changing personae of Bowie and Dylan and hailing them as postmodern icons.  Even more so than I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine emphasizes the role that style plays in shaping the identity of the rock star: Sandy Powell’s Oscar-nominated costumes capture the look of glam at its most sumptuously outrageous.

Oscar WildeVelvet Goldmine begins by supposing that Oscar Wilde was an alien—literally a man/baby who fell to earth—and that his spirit has been passed on to subsequent generations of dandies and aesthetes via a magical green jewel.  Not only do the flamboyant posturings of glam rockers hearken back to those of Wilde (near the middle of the film, Brian Slade responds to various reporters’ questions with a series of Wilde’s epigrams) but Wilde himself is depicted as a proto-glam-rock icon in his own right (when asked by his teacher what he wants to be when he grows up, the young Wilde responds “a pop idol”).   

Queer boyhood.  Some of the film’s most emotionally powerful moments involve journalist Arthur Stuart’s (Christian Bale) memories coming of age as a gay teenager while living under the thumb of repressive middle-class parents.  When Stuart’s father shames him for masturbating, or when Stuart must hide the excitement he feels for Slade when he sees him on the family television, it’s difficult not to think back to Haynes’ earlier portraits of gay boyhood—Richie in Poison, Lenny in The Suicide, Stevie in Dottie Gets Spanked

Haynes doing Roeg, Warhol, et al.  Haynes pays homage not only to glam rock in this film but also to underground and rock movies of the 1960s and ’70s: Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures; Antonioni’s Blow-Up; Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (starring Mick Jagger) and The Man who Fell to Earth (starring Bowie); Ken Russell’s Tommy; and the Andy Warhol films, especially those featuring Joe Dallesandro (whom Ewan McGregor’s Curt Wild vaguely resembles).  A member of our viewing club also suggested the influence of Brian de Palma’s rock opera Phantom of the Paradise.          

Haynes doing Haynes.  A scene in which an unseen child uses two Ken dolls to act out a love scene between Curt and Brian becomes a joking reference to Superstar (1987), Haynes’ famously suppressed Karen Carpenter biopic starring a cast of Barbies.  Velvet Goldmine is not just a looking-glass world in which the lives of real-life people like Bowie are refracted: it mirrors back sexuality, identity play, and the pieces of Haynes’ own career.


  1. I enjoyed reading this, thank you. Regarding Haynes doing cult classics and Haynes doing Haynes, the references to Mary Poppins are at least as plentiful as ones to Roeg or Citizen Kane. He's said that "Mary Poppins may be the singular text that defines me." Here's my evidence: http://vardathemessage.livejournal.com/2005/04/10/

  2. Fascinating comment; thank you! I remember reading that quote about Mary Poppins in Rob White's book about Haynes, but it never would have occurred to me to look for its influence in VG. That's one of my favorite things about Haynes' films--they mix and match the most unexpected sources.