Writer-director Todd Haynes (I’m Not There, Safe) intended Velvet Goldmine to tell the story of David Bowie’s rise to fame, but Bowie refused his approval — and songs — when he realized the script focused on a largely-fictionalized account of his sexual exploits and public persona rather than his musical career.
Haynes made a virtue of necessity, rewriting and reframing the narrative. What could have been a mere bio-pic became instead a wider statement about the consuming nature of fame and power. Fittingly, the rewritten story follows the structure of Orson Welles’ notoriously not-a-bio-pic Citizen Kane: reporter Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is tapped to investigate the disappearing act of former rock idol Brian Slade, the glammest of the glam, whose most outrageous stage act drove him into obscurity.
As in Kane, the reporter tries to divine the icon’s history at second-hand, struggling to assemble the glib or sorrowful gossip of Slade’s scattered coterie into a coherent history. Unlike Kane, Velvet Goldmine ties the reporter’s personal narrative to the subject’s, expressing the slippery way we can incorporate a celebrity’s persona into our own histories, consuming the energy of those we admire or emulate, eroding their identities in favor of our own projections.
It could have been dreary or didactic, but instead the film is a giddy tissue of visual tales, richly laced with a soundtrack of glam-rock’s greatest hits, original and reworked (and notably minus any David Bowie). Velvet Goldmine shows us the grime under a layer of glitter, the sordid soul-drain that fame can become.