David Bowie never endorsed Velvet Goldmine but it has become the ideal tribute film.
by Philip Matthews
It took weeks to realise that David Bowie’s death was at least as mysterious as his life, and that the meaning of his final album Blackstar changed utterly between January 9 and January 11…but why should we have been surprised? As the curator of his own life, Bowie was always in charge of his comebacks, reinventions and disappearances as shown even in a speculative and fictional film about Bowie’s 1970s and 80s, made in the 1990s, which Bowie himself chose to have nothing to do with.
That film is Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine. After Bowie’s death last month, tributes to Bowie the actor followed closely behind tributes to Bowie the singer and songwriter – no other rock star ever managed the transition to screen quite so well, or presented a slightly altered version of a public persona in a dramatic film as successfully as Bowie did in The Man Who Fell to Earth (in second place: the Madonna of Desperately Seeking Susan).
So there were plenty of pieces about The Man Who Fell to Earth and the second tier of Bowie films: the berserk cameo in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the unexpectedly autobiographical Jack Celliers in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, the inspired casting of Bowie as Tesla in The Prestige, the Andy Warhol he was always destined to play in Basquiat, even the dreaded Muppets-and-Escher caper Labyrinth, but oddly there was little about Tony Scott’s erotic vampire goth art film The Hunger, in which it now seems like the eerie death rehearsals in the Johan Renck-directed clips for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” were unwittingly anticipated.
There was even less about Velvet Goldmine. The Haynes (pictured left with Christian Bale) film seems to have slipped off the map of Bowie fandom, if indeed it was ever on it. These days we think of Todd Haynes as a maker of prestigious post-war women’s pictures – Mildred Pierce, Far From Heaven and Carol, out this month – but Velvet Goldmine was the second in an increasingly less outrageous series of three imaginative biopics of controversial singers with contested reputations. In his notorious Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) Haynes used Barbie dolls and Carpenters songs to tell a story about showbiz pressure and anorexia, and while it has never been properly distributed, it can be found on YouTube.
I’m Not There (2007) was a marvellously conceived dramatic essay about Bob Dylan’s shapeshifting and myth-making that came with the surprising endorsement of Dylan himself.
Velvet Goldmine (1998) was poised between the two in style, attitude and reception. It was condemned or dismissed by Bowie and those close to him, but it was also a loving tribute and an intelligent treatment, a fan film that has been too often misunderstood by Bowie literalists. (How big a fan was the director? “For so many in my generation, Bowie redefined what was possible as a popular artist, making gorgeously accessible the radical and the visionary,” Haynes said last month. “Our lives and our world will never be the same.”)
All three films are presented as investigations of a mystery or tragedy, with reconstructed documentary blending with dramatic re-enactments. Irony or camp is a given, but even the potentially ghoulish Superstar is thoughtful and poignant. Velvet Goldmine has been called an archive film, a repository of glam rock memories and impressions shaped by temporal and geographical distance. It was an intellectual exercise and a bittersweet coming-out film, both gay history and gay fantasy. The incredibly apt title came from a Bowie song that was recorded for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars in 1972 but was dropped and turned up as a B-side in 1975. As with another lost Ziggy song, “Sweet Head”, the suggestion is that the lyrics were just a little too suggestive. That means it suits Haynes’ purpose perfectly.
Like Bowie, Haynes borrowed from the best. Velvet Goldmine is about the unreliability of memory, competing accounts of great men and the failure and limitations of journalism so it’s natural that Haynes lifted the structure of Citizen Kane. In 1984, newspaper reporter Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is assigned to write a whatever-happened-to piece about glam rock star Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who faked his death on-stage in London 10 years earlier. The film has probably given ammunition to those who suspect Bowie’s death last month was a little too neatly handled and presented, and that he may still be alive.
Like the reporter Thompson in Citizen Kane, Arthur tracks down the ex-wife – Toni Colette as Mandy Slade – in a deserted bar and finds a former associate (Michael Feast) in a hospital. As in Citizen Kane, an imitation of news footage, and the mimicking of shots and scenes from DA Pennebaker’s film of the final Ziggy Stardust concert, helps to construct a subjective version of the rise and fall of Brian Slade. There are broader allusions to other films of those times: Roeg and Cammell’s Performance, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures.
Just as Bowie announced Ziggy’s end on stage, Slade’s alien rock star character Maxwell Demon is shot in front of a crowd of fans. The death of Ziggy predicted by Bowie, who apparently did genuinely fear the threat of on-stage assassination, is made literal but handled badly by Slade. When the hoax is revealed and his legend is ruined, he disappears into cocaine addiction and depression. Nothing to do, nothing to say. The curtain comes down on glam and Haynes restages the era’s “death of glitter” concerts. For the American Haynes recreating these scenes, the dark pubs and brick streets of 70s London must have seemed nearly exotic.
Some correspondences between Bowie and Slade are obvious and clear; others are additions or composites. The Iggy-like rock star Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) also comes with Lou Reed’s back story about psychiatric treatment to control teenage deviant impulses while others see elements of Mick Ronson, the first of the Bowie sidemen who would be abandoned when no longer useful. You could tick the Bowie references off a long list. When someone says that Slade was “the Sombrero Club’s prettiest star” you might think of a Bowie song from Aladdin Sane. When someone suddenly recites lines from the poem “Antigonish” – “Yesterday upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there” – you might think of “The Man Who Sold the World”. Haynes even persuaded Bowie’s mime teacher and early mentor Lindsay Kemp to make an important appearance.
You could happily disappear down wormholes into further, endless wormholes: a Brian Slade album titled Lipstick Traces gets you thinking of Dylanologist and rock intellectual Greil Marcus’s deep readings of pop history and it’s no secret that Marcus was an influence on Haynes’ Dylan film. There are similarities and differences between Haynes’ Bowie and Dylan projects. Haynes’ style was more accomplished and confident in I’m Not There than in Velvet Goldmine. Equally, the elusive Dylan that Haynes shows us is more in charge of his own career than Brian Slade ever was.
One of the chief criticisms diehard Bowie fans have of Velvet Goldmine, other than pointing out that McGregor and Meyers both look too healthy and well-fed to be the Iggy and Bowie of the early 70s, is that it seems to imply that Bowie was a pawn rather than a mastermind – it doesn’t help that the pretty but dim Meyers is that much less charismatic and talented than McGregor or Colette and that he barely has a line of original dialogue. But that overlooks a couple of things. First, the Slade we see is the Slade that is remembered by a bitter ex-wife, a dumped manager and an abandoned sidekick, just as impressions of Charles Foster Kane vary depending on who tells the story.
Second, it is possible that Slade is just another mask for the frustratingly elusive Jack Fairy (played by unknown Micko Westmoreland), or someone else again. You can keep digging but you will never get to him, whoever he is. He’s not there.
Somewhere behind Brian Slade, Maxwell Demon, Jack Fairy and every other permutation is Oscar Wilde, who Haynes presents as the first pop idol, arriving like Ziggy from another planet. In scenes that actually suggest Dylan’s cryptic mid-60s press conferences more than Bowie’s, Slade quotes line after line from Wilde as though Wilde had devised the ultimate glam manifesto. “Beauty reveals everything because it expresses nothing.” Or: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.”
Another Wilde line, quoted bitterly by Colette’s Mandy Slade, who is a very clear analogue of Angie Bowie, could have worked as a Bowie mission statement right up to and beyond the release of Blackstar: “You live in terror of not being misunderstood.” Just as Angie helped to style or even invent Ziggy, Mandy Slade is in many ways the intellectual guide in Velvet Goldmine. “He became someone else, but then he always was,” she tells Bale’s reporter. “How essential dreaming is to the character of the rock star,” she says. “Maxwell Demon, Curt Wild – they were fictions.”
Brian Slade is still in the dress-wearing mode of The Man Who Sold the World when he sees Curt Wild and invents glam rock. McGregor as Wild is doing a rough approximation of a live Iggy act – but more sensual and less hostile ¬– on a version of “TV Eye”. Later, he offers a suitably terrible rendition of “Gimme Danger” and a funny parody of bad Iggy titled “My Unclean”, written for the movie by Ron Asheton and Mark Arm. By this point, we are well into an apocalyptic, decadent Diamond Dogs/Metallic KO phase.
Iggy Pop lent his glam-era music to the movie, as did T Rex, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Steve Harley, Slade, even Gary Glitter. But Bowie famously declined. Haynes and producer Michael Stipe reportedly asked to use seven Bowie songs – a good selection, heavy on the fantastic ballads and torch songs of the Ziggy era: “All the Young Dudes”, “Lady Stardust”, “Lady Grinning Soul”, “Velvet Goldmine”, “Moonage Daydream”, “Sweet Thing”, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” – but depending on which story you read, Bowie either thought seven songs was too many, had his own Ziggy movie project in mind or the character of Brian Slade was too gay. So Haynes recruited Grant Lee Buffalo, Thom Yorke and others to write and record Bowie soundalike songs – you could swear that “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” was from a forgotten Ziggy session.
But there is a trace of Bowie in the film, regardless. His backing vocals on Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” are heard during a sequence in which Brian and Curt, the film’s alternative Bowie and Iggy, ride bumper cars and fall in love. Or at least they do in the imagination of teenage fan and NME reader Arthur Stuart, who sees a picture of Brian simulating a sex act on Curt’s guitar ¬¬– like the famous shot of Bowie and Mick Ronson – takes the stunt seriously and wonders about what might have happened next. His imagination fills in the blanks, and this is one of the ways Velvet Goldmine shows how glam was a fans’ project. Meaning slipped out of the hands of the makers, which made it even more ironic that Bowie sought to control that meaning 25 years later.
What were the objections? “The film didn’t understand how innocent everyone was then,” Bowie said after seeing Velvet Goldmine. He wasn’t alone in thinking that Haynes’ queer take on glam rock was just too gay. Bowie producer Tony Visconti called it “a gay porn film disguised as a musical”. Ziggy photographer Mick Rock said “make-up was nothing to do with being gay”.
All of them missed the point. How much of the incredible outpouring of public grief after Bowie’s death related to the idea that Bowie was an inspirational figure for outsiders? As the fictional Arthur Stuart and the real Haynes show, crowds of individuals were liberated or at least consoled by Bowie’s example, as they projected their own meanings and fantasies onto him. It seemed a little short-sighted and ungenerous for the Bowie camp to have tried to suppress those meanings and fantasies.
That is not to say that Bowie’s brief adoption of a gay or bisexual identity during the glam years was opportunistic. Rock critic Barney Hoskyns may have had the best take on it when he wrote that while Bowie was not gay, Ziggy was (“Ziggy enabled Bowie to turn himself into an icon of deviance fit to stand alongside the Lou Reeds and Iggy Pops”).
In the end Bowie probably did himself and Haynes a favour by saying no. I’m Not There became a film endorsed by Dylan, but by refusing permission, Bowie stayed as elusive and distant as Brian Slade is for Arthur Stuart. The reporter eventually suspects that Slade has been hiding in plain sight all along, reinvented as bouffanted 80s stadium rocker Tommy Stone, which is a smart and possibly cruel way of conveying the disappointment many Bowie fans had about the Serious Moonlight and Glass Spider years of the 1980s. Had Bowie approved the use of his songs, he would have had to buy into that mockery.
Instead, he stayed out of it and disappeared almost entirely from public life a few years later. When Bowie suddenly reappeared in 2013, it was with a whatever-happened-to song, “Where Are We Now?”, that had much of the regretful, mournful feeling that Haynes reached for in Velvet Goldmine. It was an explicit revisiting of the past, entirely on his own terms, that continued through to Blackstar and the musical Lazarus, which updates the lost alien of The Man Who Fell to Earth and features 15 Bowie songs – twice as many as Haynes asked to use in Velvet Goldmine. Bowie stayed secretive, releasing only the clues about himself that he wanted to release.
In that sense, Velvet Goldmine is the perfect Bowie tribute for right now, because it shows how he continues to elude us. Its investigative mood seems prescient because we still have a sense that Bowie has both given something to us and frustrated our attempts to pin him down. While he continues to outwit us, the film has become more exact than even Haynes could have hoped or expected – when a shocked Angie Bowie said two weeks after his death that her ex-husband had “staged his passing rather well”, it could have been a moment scripted for the fictional Mandy Slade in Velvet Goldmine.