This article was originally published in RS 800, November 26th, 1998.
Todd Haynes was, in his own words, “a little short of being there.” But he remembers the teenage girls — the flashy, precocious, glitter-rock fillies — that he went to school with in Southern California in the early 1970s.
“They were the smoking girls, the tough girls,” Haynes says with lingering awe, “the ones wearing shiny red nail polish and lipstick, jewelry, little shoes with big heels and straps around the ankles. They were talking about Iggys and Ziggys — bi this and bi that: ‘Bowie’s bi, Elton’s bi.’ And I’m going, ‘What the fuck are they talking about? Bi what?’ “
One of America’s most acclaimed experimental filmmakers, the writer-director of the provocative independent features Poison (1991) and Safe (1995), Haynes, 37, also recalls being startled, awed and even a bit frightened by the album covers of glitter’s heyday — “these shocking masks” of pouting, erotic futurists like David Bowie, Marc Bolan of T. Rex, Iggy Pop and Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry. Haynes claims that the portrait of Bowie as a melting, pastel alien on the 1973 LP Aladdin Sane was “too disturbing for me at the time. It was too threatening. And it was fascinating. You couldn’t not look at it.
“The sexuality, the androgyny — this was something otherworldly,” Haynes says, eyes still wide with the memory. “It forced categories into complete chaos, in a brilliant way.”
Haynes tried to express those feelings in a letter he wrote to Bowie about two years ago. The note was one of several attempts to get the singer to give his paternal blessing — along with permission to license six Bowie songs — to Velvet Goldmine, Haynes’ film valentine to glitter (named after one of Bowie’s great Ziggy Stardust-period B sides). After putting Haynes through a long, hand-wringing wait, Bowie graciously declined on both counts, noting that he had plans for a film of his own on the subject.
It was the best thing that could have happened to Haynes. Liberated from the specific rock history associated with Bowie’s songs, Haynes went on to make a movie about the soul of the era: the tidal splash of pop guitars, raging puberty and elegant anarchy that was glitter — or glam, as the English called it — from 1972 to ’74. Written and directed by Haynes, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor, and powered by a dynamite soundtrack, Velvet Goldmine is the most visually sumptuous, sexually vivid film ever made about rock & roll. It may also be the most honest, precisely because of its blurring of truth and fiction — “which they,” Haynes says of Bowie, Bolan, et al, “did better than anybody.”
Simply put, Velvet Goldmine (Haynes did not need Bowie’s go-ahead to use the song title) is based on sort-of biography, kind-of fact. Rhys Meyers plays a cherubic androgyne, Brian Slade, who transforms himself with icy calculation into a Space Age, openly bisexual pop god — just as Bowie did in 1972. McGregor brings the same deft mix of emotional finesse and burly physical electricity that he displayed in Trainspotting to the part of Curt Wild, a loose-cannon, Iggy-esque punk singer who gets sucked into Slade’s glitzy orbit — much as Iggy was Bowie’s in-house he-wolf in ’72 and ’73.
The supporting cast touches other archetypes of the time. Toni Collette juggles posh British and flat Yankee accents as Slade’s Angela Bowie-like missis; Eddie Izzard does a superb, cigar-chomping turn as Jerry Devine, Slade’s Tony DeFries-style hardball manager. On the soundtrack, Nineties kids Grant Lee Buffalo and Shudder to Think perform original, accurate pastiches of glam hits while Placebo, Teenage Fan Club and members of Radiohead and Sonic Youth put fresh kick into the Stooges’ “T.V. Eye,” T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” and Roxy Music’s moving, valedictory ballad “2HB.”
But Haynes is unafraid to fuck with documented events in order to highlight the vital subtext: glam’s combined explosions of possibility in art and in sexual identity. At the very start of the film, Haynes suggests that Victorian dandy Oscar Wilde was the real father of glitter — and extraterrestrial by birth. Borrowing Bowie’s flirtation with the idea of rock & roll suicide, Haynes tells the story of Slade’s free fall from the top with an onstage shooting hoax and a what-made-him-tick narrative style cribbed from Citizen Kane. The lack of Bowie songs in the movie — Haynes had hoped to use “Lady Stardust” and “All the Young Dudes,” among others — enables the director to celebrate glitter rock’s larger canon: Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire,” “Diamond Meadows” by T. Rex, the sultry ballad “Sebastian” by Cockney Rebel.
Velvet Goldmine is also a multitiered love story. Haynes takes glam’s bisexual trappings to deeper emotional extremes with an explicitly rendered romance between Slade and Wild. One of the movie’s most compelling scenes is a long, tight-focus kiss featuring the two men, shot in harsh light and flat, pregnant silence. There are hints, too, of an ambiguous relationship between Wild and an impressionable fan, Arthur Stuart, played with an adept blend of nerves and wonder by Christian Bale. Using an emerald that passes from Slade to Wild to Stuart, Haynes traces the sensual magnetism — between star and audience and among the stars themselves — that defined glam.
“It’s great to see a relationship between two guys in a film, where they go through that and split up,” says McGregor, who describes Rhys Meyers as “a lovely snog.” “In all the madness, they are at least that normal — that they have relationships that fuck up.”
Rhys Meyers says that the kiss was shot quickly, in two takes. Another love scene, ostensibly set on a misty beach, was filmed in Super-8, in a white room with a little sand on the floor. And when the actor finally saw the finished movie, at Velvet Goldmine’s May premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, he was stunned by Haynes’ rich, tender treatment of the Slade-Wild heart play. “It blew me away,” Rhys Meyers raves. “I really wanted Curt and Brian to be in love. I’m sure there were people sitting there going, ‘Oh, it’s a nice love story, but they’re gay.’ But it was beautiful.”
R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, one of the film’s executive producers, was shocked when, during a studio pitch meeting to raise financing for the film, someone suggested that Velvet Goldmine was “a gay movie.” Stipe contends that it is “a fantasy about fantasy,” about how “you can create and re-create your own identity, as flamboyantly as you wish, from day to day.”
Haynes agrees. “I was trying to replicate how glam rock worked as a form, as a style,” he says, drinking iced coffee on the asphalt patio of a bar near his lower-Manhattan office. “The challenge was to accomplish what I think is so amazing about Bowie and particularly Roxy Music: that combination of highly referenced irony, pushing it to the limit of camp, but also emotionally resonant — at times arrestingly beautiful, at times fucking hard, rockin’ music. How did they ride that delicate wire? Most rock & roll is defined by its authenticity, its ability to shed the surface and the makeup. These artists could foreground the artificiality, make it powerful. That is a trick I tried hard to get into the film — to be full of wit and irony and literary shit but to be moving and enveloping, an emotional trip.”
After he finished Poison, his feature-length debut, which was inspired by the writings of Jean Genet, Haynes was in Hawaii with James Lyons (his editor and, at the time, his boyfriend), and they were talking about an idea Lyons had for a three-part movie about masculinity — how homosexuality is manifest and utilized in the mainstream cultures of the church, the military and glam rock.
“I thought it was an amazing idea,” says Haynes, “maybe too much for one film. I said, ‘That glam-rock thing, Jim, is pretty cool.’ And we earmarked it.” While working on Safe (starring Julianne Moore as a housewife who becomes allergic to twentieth-century living) and the short Dotty Gets Spanked (an odd, loving nod to Lucille Ball), Haynes and Lyons developed the glam-rock story, with Haynes eventually writing the script himself.
Much of his research consisted of listening to the records and reading back issues of the British music weeklies Melody Maker and New Musical Express. As he wrote, Haynes balanced his neofictional tangents — the fake shooting; Arthur’s search for the truth a decade later; the flamboyant character of Jack Fairy, a third, phantom wheel in the Slade-Wild relationship — with historical minutiae. For Wild’s past, Haynes drew from Iggy (raised in a Michigan trailer park) and from Lou Reed (forced to undergo electroshock therapy as a teenager). A grand circus-cum-press-conference sequence in which Slade answers questions in Oscar Wilde aphorisms was based on a notorious London junket that Bowie’s management staged for U.S. critics in the summer of 1972.
Guitarist Ron Asheton, a founding member of the Stooges and an eyewitness to the Iggy-Ziggy scene at its mad height, was stunned by the attention to detail in Velvet Goldmine. “When [McGregor] was doing his whole Iggy bit in ‘T.V. Eye,’ I actually got goose bumps for a second,” admits Asheton, who appears on the soundtrack as a member of the Stoogeaphonic band the Wylde RaTTz. “Whoever made those silver pants, they had it down to the cross-hatchings on the crotch. What gave me a chuckle was when Brian Slade first meets the Iggy character. [McGregor’s] all junked out, his head goes back and he’s got a cigarette in his mouth. Well, I pulled lit cigarettes out of Iggy’s face while he was totally out of it. To me, that was like, ‘Been there, done that.’ “
Haynes’ aspirations for Velvet Goldmine far outstripped his resources: a $7 million budget and nine weeks’ shooting time in London. According to music supervisor Randy Poster, less than ten percent of that budget went to the music: thirty-three songs, seventeen written or recorded specially for the project. “We really had to bend over backward,” says Poster. “But people were helpful. Passion converted into savings.”
Former Grant Lee Buffalo bassist Paul Kimble produced the music by the Venus in Furs, the ersatz Spiders From Mars group featuring singer Thom Yorke and guitarist Jon Greenwood of Radiohead, ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler and Roxy Music saxophonist Andy Mackay. “The whole session in England was chaotic,” Kimble remembers. “Todd would say, ‘We’re shooting this scene on Wednesday.’ It would be Sunday, and we’d need to have a song done and mixed by Tuesday so they could have tapes to work with.” The Furs’ basic tracks were done in two days, and, Kimble says, “the stuff I did with Thom Yorke took an hour, tops.”
Haynes made astute, timely choices in casting. Velvet Goldmine came to Rhys Meyers’ attention as he was rebounding from disappointment — he’d just gotten the script for Boogie Nights, only to learn that Mark Wahlberg had already nabbed the male lead. Haynes signed McGregor before the fast-rising Scot landed the big-bucks role of the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas’ upcoming Star Wars prequel.
Rhys Meyers and McGregor were not experts on glam. A native of County Cork, Ireland, and the son of a traditional-folk musician, Rhys Meyers was born in 1977, three years after glam had fizzled in popularity. McGregor was a year old, living in a small town in Scotland, when Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album was issued in 1972. But both actors took to their parts with vigor.
For one thing, Rhys Meyers and McGregor did their own singing for nearly all the performance sequences. Rhys Meyers even recorded a demo tape for Haynes, pre-production, to prove he could do the job. “He and Ewan wanted to absorb themselves into the characters,” remarks Stipe, “and they were willing to humiliate themselves in a recording studio to do that. But goddamn, they can sing.”
McGregor watched Iggy concert videos — a 1992 reel, Kiss My Blood, and the great peanut-butter-and-crowd-surfing footage from the 1970 Cincinnati Pop Festival. But, he says, “The only way to reach what I did [onstage] was to throw myself around in rehearsal and see what happens.” McGregor also went through Iggy steps with choreographer Lea Anderson, who had created a dance work based on the Stooges’ physical movements.
“Then,” McGregor says, “it was a case of getting three cameras set up and lighting the stage, because they never knew where I would be at any moment. And I would go. I was completely taken over by it. When they said ‘Cut!,’ I was rather surprised to find myself in front of a camera. I’d lost the plot entirely.”
McGregor and Haynes insist that any echoes of the late Kurt Cobain in Curt Wild were an accident of McGregor’s remarkably similar physiognomy and long blond hair in the film. McGregor picked up the low, gravelly twang in Wild’s voice from listening to Robbie Robertson in The Last Waltz. Haynes named the character after Curt Davis, a friend of James Lyons who had died of AIDS. Davis was “this punk guy with a brilliant mind,” Haynes says. “I think he used the name Curt Wild in some of his writing. So we adopted that affectionately.”
Rhys Meyers’ problem was how to play a Bowie-like character without relying too much on the real, living thing. Besides, he notes, “David Bowie is a fucking character invented by David Jones. So it was like, ‘Who am I supposed to play?’ ” Rhys Meyers concentrated on becoming a believable rock star — to the point where, during filming, he rented an apartment, bought a guitar and amplifier, and tried writing his own music: “I hung out there, had different people come over, never actually left this apartment unless I had to. I wanted to realistically be a rock star — would people come and buy tickets to see me at a gig?”
Rhys Meyers tried another odd method of study. He sat in the back of old black London taxis, riding through the city night. “I’d look out the window,” he says, “and try to see what those people saw at the time. After doing it for two or three nights, I knew I never could. I could only see what I saw.”
Ultimately, Velvet Goldmine is Haynes’ very personal vision of glam — what he might have seen if he’d been hip to it at the time, what he sees as its legacy now. He points out that his script originally featured a radically different ending: two butch London dockworkers in a fierce kiss. As the camera pulled away, they would be shown on a barge, finally breaking apart and going back to work. But Haynes scrapped the scene, a backhanded critique of contemporary macho-gay clichés, because it cheapened the electricity between Slade and Wild.
“What was interesting to me about the sexuality of the early Seventies, especially in England,” Haynes explains, “was that it wasn’t even gay. It was about opposites attracting each other: men and women, gays and straights. It’s much easier to accept categories — ‘that gay person over there, doing their thing, away from me.’
“But bisexuality,” he says, with a bright, troublemaker’s smile, “implicates everybody.”