I wanted to watch this movie for ages and I finally did it. This love letter to the 70s glam rock, very loosely inspired by David Bowie, is rather scattered and uneven, but at the very least it offers heaps more fun and weirdness than your average musical biopic.
For starters, there’s a bonkers prologue in which it’s suggested that Oscar Wilde was brought to Earth to be the first pop star. I’m sure that the nod to Wilde’s fairytale The Star-Child was intentional, but I wonder if they were also thinking of Bowie’s Starman. Another unexpected reference point is Citizen Kane, whose structure the movie borrows to tell the story of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a flamboyant 70s glam rock icon who disappears from public view after his faked onstage assassination causes huge backlash. A decade later, in the grey and subdued 80s, journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is tasked with finding out what happened to the fallen star, which makes him revisit his own past.
You do find out Slade’s ultimate fate in the end, but the payoff feels insignificant and whole thing is more like an excuse for a series of vignettes that explore his life, career and relationship. If the movie has a major flaw it’s that Slade never becomes a fully fleshed-out character or even an intriguing enigma; Charles Foster Kane or David Bowie he’s not. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is casting perfection as a strikingly androgynous pop star and never looks anything less than fabulous, but the character is all glitter and no substance. In fact, it increasingly feels like the heart of the film instead belongs to Arthur and the exploration of what glam rock music meant to an awkward closeted kid growing up in the 70s. Living with his conservative parents, it’s a thrill for Arthur to see Slade openly discuss his bisexuality at a televised press conference, or feel like he’s finally found his tribe at a rock concert.
The supporting players include Toni Collette as Slade’s American wife Mandy and Eddie Izzard as his second manager, but the true scene-stealing performance belongs to Ewan McGregor who plays Curt Wild, Slade’s rock hero and lover. Wild’s unhinged, self-destructive ways are clearly meant to channel Iggy Pop, but I also thought that McGregor looked eerily like Kurt Cobain in the part.
Velvet Goldmine has trouble deciding whose story it really wants to tell, and some moments feel a tad pretentious, but watching the competent yet strictly by-the-numbers trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody recently made me appreciate its chaotic, exuberant and at times plain weird approach even more so. The bold and extravagant costume design by Sandy Powell makes the 70s glam era feel irresistible, along with the fantastic soundtrack and long musical sequences.
P.S. By a bizarre coincidence, I reviewed a film about a rock star who fakes his death on the same day a Russian journalist turned up alive after a staged assassination.