The Music is the Mask

by Morgan Leigh Davies

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The first time I ever watched any part of Velvet Goldmine, which by that time was already over ten years old, was on YouTube. The video was not good quality. Its picture was blurry and I’m sure the sound was terrible. I don’t remember how it came up, or why my college roommate told me I had to watch it, but this is how the movie circulates: girls in teenage bedrooms and college dorms passing it around like some kind of illicit substance, red-faced with enthusiasm, never failing to bring up that one particular scene in which Ewan McGregor’s dick features prominently. The clip I saw on YouTube that day was a music video, essentially: a fantasy, in the film, featuring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers camped-up in a pink wig and platform shoes and then again as a weird alien creature. For reasons that have never been made clear to me, it begins with McGregor—very dirty, dressed like a faun—jumping down a chimney. It was, I concluded, amazing.

These days Velvet Goldmine has maintained an odd reputation as a kind of failed (if interesting) experiment, though it certainly has its fair share of ardent, raving fans. It’s a profoundly weird and spectacular movie, in the literal sense of the word: a quasi-biopic of David Bowie that pays tribute to the glitter-infused, sexually fluid glam rock movement that hit Britain in the early 1970s, but also repeatedly invokes Oscar Wilde and borrows liberally from Orson Welles. The fact that it ever got made at all is probably nothing short of a miracle.

Unsurprising, then, that it was a commercial disaster, even by art house standards: it made just over $1 million domestically and $4.3 million worldwide, off a production budget of $9 million. As with much of director Todd Haynes’ work (like the Bob Dylan “biopic”, I’m Not There), critics found it excessively esoteric, too packed with references to be truly accessible. To be fair, they have a point: there’s hardly a moment in the movie that isn’t referencingsomething, be it Bowie’s life and work, The Picture of Dorian Gray, or the narrative structure ofCitizen Kane. Still, what many critics seem to forget is that you don’t need to understand all of those references to “get” Velvet Goldmine—at least, not entirely.

You just need to get the music.

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As Brian Eno’s “Needle in the Camel’s Eye” begins playing over the opening credits of this quasi-biopic, we meet our first principal character. It isn’t the film’s David Bowie stand-in, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), or even Curt Wild, Ewan McGregor’s Iggy Pop approximation. Instead it’s Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale, more recognizably, sympathetically human than he’s ever been since), running down a London street with a gaggle of other provocatively decked-out kids, wearing truly remarkable shoes, a green velvet jacket, and a leopard-print scarf. He looks young, and stupid, and excited: his cheeks are perpetually flushed an almost unhealthy shade of red. He’s overexerted. He loves things too much—chiefly, music; and, more specifically, Brian Slade.

When the movie begins, Arthur is living with his oppressive middle-class English parents, furtively buying Slade albums at the local record store (to the great amusement and derision of his peers), reduced to hiding his more conservative clothes in the bushes in front of his house when he goes out. When he watches the sexually omnivorous Slade out himself to the world on television, Arthur fantasizes about shouting, “That’s me, Dad! That’s me!” to his father, who’s watching alongside him. He doesn’t do it, though – just retreats to his room with provocative album foldouts and photos from the newspaper, to do the things that teenage boys do (eat potato chips; masturbate).

Later, after his father eventually, inevitably walks in on him engaging in said typical teenage boy behavior – but with the wrong people in mind – Arthur winds up fleeing to London, where for a brief moment his life seems sweet and free and easy. In other words, too good to last. But for a little while, at least, he is liberated: everything does get better.

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The fact that Velvet Goldmine opens with a young Oscar Wilde announcing to his teacher that he wants “to be a pop idol” isn’t a coincidence. Stars who can inspire that type of feeling in other people become idols in a literal sense: their photos pored over, their bodies no longer their own. Arthur does this lovingly, but his obsessive gaze nevertheless amounts to a desperate act of fetishization. For a period of time, Arthur depends on Slade—and the musical scene of which he is the brightest-burning star—to catalyze his own identity: when Slade ultimately vanishes from the limelight after staging a faux-assassination at a major London concert, understandably enraging and alienating his devotees, Arthur’s newly won liberation inevitably follows.

Despite his struggle to find some semblance of independent, authentic identity as a teenager, by the time Arthur is an adult, he’s back in the closet: affect flat, clothes unremarkable, office and apartment the same dreary shade of gray. Slade may be Velvet Goldmine’s Charles Foster Kane, but unlike the anonymous reporters tracking down Kane’s life story in Welles’ classic film, Arthur is not a neutral presence here. When his editor gives him an assignment to figure out “Where Brian Slade Is Today”, it becomes an opportunity not only for him to piece together the puzzle of Slade’s life, but also to reassess his own.

Of course, Arthur’s journalistic enterprise is focused on one question: what did happen to Slade? What happens to those shining people whose photos grace the record albums and are printed endlessly in newspapers, those stars who appear on our televisions or go up on stage night after night? Velvet Goldmine is as much a story about these fragile, ill-fated pop idols as it is about Arthur, the archetypal fan. If Arthur invests too much of his identity in their music, well, so do they.

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Brian Slade cycles through all sorts of identities before ultimately hitting on the one that will make his name: Maxwell Demon, an otherworldly creature who corresponds almost exactly to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust (Demon’s hair, however, is blue). He exists in public and for the public: which version of me, he seems to be asking, do you prefer? But, if there ever really was a Brian Slade to begin with, more and more of him inevitably gets sloughed off each time he performs his little acts of self-destruction and rebirth.

The idea for Maxwell Demon comes to Brian immediately after he first encounters Curt Wild, at a music festival where his performance (sporting very long hair and a dress) has bombed spectacularly. Wild isn’t exactly popular with the audience, but he’s certainly compelling: topless, confrontational, eyes bugging wildly. By the time he’s finished his set, he’s bared literally everything. Brian is transfixed—jealous—aroused. “I wish I had thought of it,” he tells his wife Mandy (Toni Colette) the next day. “You will, love,” she says. “You will.” The film cuts from his forlorn expression directly to Curt, in full faun drag, jumping down that chimney, leading both Brian and the audience directly to Maxwell Demon. Brian may be something of an otherworldly creature himself, but his greatest creative breakthrough comes out of a moment of pure adulation, and leads to what is arguably the only truly authentic relationship in his life—albeit one mediated by countless cameras, newspaper articles, and outside eyes.

Curt Wild’s particularly seductive quality is the fact that, despite what Brian might have thought, he didn’t simply “think of it.” The person Wild becomes on stage isn’t some persona he’s created for the public: it’s a raw, unfiltered self. Wild’s particular blessing (and curse) is that he is seemingly incapable of insincerity. He’s pure id. Whereas Brian is so good at shielding himself from his adoring public that he often forgets to leave anything intact behind the facade, Curt just cuts open his veins and bleeds and bleeds upon the stage until he doesn’t have any blood left to give. Opposites, after all, attract.

But in a strange twist of fate, Arthur winds up in Curt’s orbit, too, however briefly: following a concert at which Brian Slade quite convincingly stages his own assassination (an event so traumatic it’s heralded as the “Death of Glam”). Arthur – dressed, naturally, as Slade – encounters Wild, emotionally spent as a result of recent events, and winds up sleeping with him.

The episode is depicted as a positive moment for both characters – but as we all know, there’s an invisible, impermeable wall between idol and fan that isn’t meant to be breached, certainly not sexually, and once it has been, there isn’t really anywhere left for the two of them to go. Wild and Slade’s relationship is doomed, and Arthur’s encounter with Wild has its own odd, melancholic aftereffects. Wild, like Slade, fades into dispirited obscurity. Arthur, in that strange, antediluvian moment, finds that Slade is gone, and that Wild is no longer a model for some kind of alternate way of being, but instead just a regular human being, whose flesh and blood is real rather than metaphorical. In attempting to push himself into the world of his idols – by dressing like them, by fucking them – he realizes that they are, in fact, false gods.

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Velvet Goldmine is full of the ecstasy of music, jam-packed with actual songs from the seventies, as well as other songs meant to sound like they were. Sometimes, when someone, especially Wild, is performing in the film, Haynes’ camera cuts to or pans over the audience. The crowd becomes one undulating, almost orgiastic body: a sea of hysterical faces, suspended in a kind of prolonged ecstasy. The performer has managed to capture that indefinable alchemical thing that gets into people’s bones and their blood, like liquor, like a drug, like sex. But it always must come to an end: the lights always come up, the audience is always pushed out into the night. The musicians are left alone backstage, the crowd is forced to return to the unsympathetic embrace of reality. The ecstasy we feel in those magical moments, listening to live music in the dark, is real—but it’s also fleeting.

None of the characters in Velvet Goldmine ever figure out how to be outside of that ecstasy. All of them are left behind, except Slade himself, who just vanishes. They flew too close to the sun and got burned so badly that they never figured out another way to live. But, as it turns out, Slade has: Arthur eventually discovers that Slade has refashioned himself—through considerable determination and plastic surgery—into conservative rock star Tommy Stone. When Arthur finally sees him again in the flesh, at a concert and in the press line afterwards, he sees him for the first time as he truly is: a shadow of a person, someone who might have become a real boy, but never quite managed it. They don’t have anything to do with each other. It’s liberating. Arthur isn’t the kid he was ten years before, and no longer has to be.

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I’ve seen Velvet Goldmine literally countless times: when I was writing about it for my senior thesis in college, I lost track. I know every shot, every single music cue, every line of dialogue. I can’t say I get all of Haynes’ references—I suspect Haynes himself has forgotten some of them by this point—but I get most of them. There aren’t many other films I know this intimately, that I understand with this level of sophistication. And it’s rewarding to know a movie that well, inside-out, to feel that level of understanding while I’m watching it.

But that very first time I saw it—lying on the bed in my dorm room during my freshman year of college—I didn’t understand any of the movie’s context: I’d never seen Citizen Kane, barely knew who David Bowie was, and the only Wilde I’d read was The Importance of Being Earnest. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that I watched the movie on what we’d now consider an archaic version of Netflix’s streaming service, which was frequently blurry to the point of incoherence, and stopped to buffer itself every ten minutes. Because the final, greatest trick of Velvet Goldmine is that, even as it carefully and thoughtfully breaks down celebrity idolatry, it never underestimates the power or seductive appeal of being a fan. This movie gets it: Brian Slade may not be a very appealing person, but it’s hard not to become a fan of Maxwell Demon. We’re along for the ride with Arthur – and on the way, we fall for the movie, too.


Morgan Leigh Davies is a writer whose essays on film and culture have appeared in The Toast, Mic, and elsewhere. She is the editor-in-chief of Big Bang Press and can be found on Twitter at @MLDavies. She lives in Brooklyn.