Todd Haynes, the director of Velvet Goldmine, was not interested in historical accuracy. Bowie himself disapproved of the whole project, and the writer took inspiration from several famous musicians and personalities to create each character.
Biopics are risky. As fans, we know the faces of our idols too well, and loving their work creates an illusion of intimacy for us. I can't imagine the effort it takes for actors to learn all the expressions, gestures and subtle movements that are necessary to play a well-known historical figure. Another aspect that gets in the way is when we're also familiar with the actors. We've seen their faces many times and their personalities feel inseparable from their bodies. It reminds us that we're watching a work of fiction, the director's perspective, not what happened at the time to the people that were lucky (or unlucky) enough to be present. And, of course, it feels fake to see the face of a handsome actor playing a weird-looking musician who became popular but was once a bullied outcast.
If you hate those unsuccessful biopics, Velvet Goldmine is the film for you. It follows the vicissitudes of Brian Slade's life, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and inspired by David Bowie. Director Todd Haynes was uninterested in historical accuracy. Bowie himself disapproved of the whole project, and the writer took inspiration from several famous musicians and personalities to create each character. The result is a film that portrays the general feeling of the times and the social tendencies of the music scene, instead of a strict biography or reenactment of the events.
Another unusual aspect of Velvet Goldmine is its interest in the fans, the culture the surrounds the spectacle and the real effect the music has on people's lives. A big part of it focuses on ordinary humans instead of the stars. Take for instance, Arthur, the journalist who has to find out what happened to Slade's career. He is a fan of the glam-rock movement, and we get to see his enthusiasm and uncool eagerness. Even if the movie is messy, fragmented, and a bad imitation of Citizen Kane, it's necessary to see the real emotions a manufactured product like a music spectacle can provoke.
A strange phenomenon surrounds famous people, especially musicians. Their notoriety enables them to do things that an ordinary person is not allowed to do. The results are varied. They can be positive or negative, but the freedom that comes with money and power, is the chance to bring new ideas to the public atmosphere and open debates. Bowie, like the protagonist of this film, opens discussions about gender and sexuality.
The characters of Velvet Goldmine take themselves and their stage personas too seriously. They want focus on innovating instead of finding authentic self-expression. But what they do as part of the glam-rock movement still causes real emotion. Authentic or not, the music, the costumes, and the makeup are just excuses to establish bonds and to build a community for the people that need it the most. The music scene fades, but the connections and the bravery of our unabashed, glitter-wearing selves will last forever.
In the end, Velvet Goldmine is its own subject: something not entirely cool that provokes true feelings among its cult-following of unironic and enthusiastic teenagers. The film has many flaws, but we should be able to sincerely appreciate anything that gives us space to be who we are, glitter and all.
Here are other reads you'll enjoy: