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Velvet Goldmine (1998)

September 6th, 2007 · 3 Comments

“Miramax is brilliant at publicizing its successes, but it’s even more brilliant at burying its failures,” said Dennis Rice, their former president of marketing. Miramax Films was notorious for test screening its movies – often in malls in New Jersey – and barely releasing the ones that scored poorly. Some went straight to video, even those with major stars. Here’s a look at some of the studio’s B-sides, bombs and greatest misses.

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Glam rock icon Maxwell Demon, alias Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) takes the stage in England, where an assassin shoots him. The incident is revealed to be a hoax, and Slade’s career implodes. The rocker then disappears. In 1984, on the ten year anniversary of the stunt, journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is sent to find out what happened to Slade.

Much of Arthur’s information on the charismatic, bisexual rock star comes from his soused, American ex-wife Mandy (Toni Collette), who recounts her ex-husband’s rise from musical anonymity at the Sombero Club in Kensington, his obsession with a trash rocker named Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) and his makeover into a star under the guide of manager Jerry Devine (Eddie Izzard).

As Slade’s story unfolds, we also follow a teenage Arthur as he discovers the freedom of expression in glam rock, troubling his parents with his bizarre new tastes. Slade fails to rejuvenate Curt Wild’s career, prompting Slade to commit career suicide and vanish. Searching for him ten years later, Arthur discovers similarities between Slade and a soulless pop icon named Tommy Stone.

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Production history 
As early as 1990, writer-director Todd Haynes was interested in making a movie about the rise and aftermath of glam rock, the theatrical, sexually amorphous genre personified by David Bowie, which peaked in England in 1973. Haynes felt the visual dash of the era’s performers would be perfect for a film, and wrote a script from a story developed with editor James Lyons. With producer Christine Vachon, Haynes approached Bowie for the rights to his music. After some consideration, the rocker turned them down.

With financing from CiBy 2000 and Channel 4 in England, a budget of $9 million was set. Before filming began, $1 million of that evaporated. Harvey Weinstein then became interested in the film’s North American rights. He met with the filmmakers, mentioning The Crying Game and how Miramax was a gay friendly studio. Impressed with his pitch – and needing money – Vachon agreed to let Miramax distribute the film in the U.S.

Weinstein was underwhelmed when shown a rough cut. He insisted they test screen the film. When the results came back, Miramax suggested about 13 minutes be cut. Haynes ultimately ignored most of the suggestions, trimming only three or four minutes. Weinstein responded by burying the movie. Velvet Goldmine received a limited release in the U.S., disappearing amid lukewarm reviews and barely $1 million at the box office.

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Within the opening ten minutes of Velvet Goldmine, we’re treated to a UFO, Oscar Wilde, glam rock fans in the UK, and a phony assassination. So, this is as far from Selena as you can get. Haynes rejected a facts based approach to the life of David Bowie. His tools as a filmmaker include a vivid imagination, visual panache, and an elaborate narrative inspired by Citizen Kane.

Terrific casting – and one of the best rock soundtracks of all time – augment the brilliance of this movie. Christian Bale, Toni Collette and Ewan McGregor are great in this. I can’t think of many actors who could pull off what they did here (McGregor and Rhys Meyers supplied their own vocals). The soundtrack includes songs written by Brian Eno, Iggy Pop and Bryan Ferry and I can’t recall one of the tracks that wasn’t awesome. And I’m not even a fan of glam rock.

Haynes alternates between fact and innuendo, the ’70s and ’80s, reality and fantasy. There’s not a single miscue here. So many rock films go off the rails by dramatizing incidents, only to end up trivializing the musicians. Instead of obsessing over what Bowie did, or who he did, Velvet Goldmine conjures a trippy, dreamlike feel that engages the imagination. The film suggests that this is exactly what made glam rock unique in the first place.

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Goldmine‘s success is in its evocation of the period – glam-struck London of the early 1970s – and its poignancy depicting the alienation of an insecure rock fan as he tries to be as Out There as the In Crowd,” writes Jon Dunmore at Poffy the Cucumber’s Movie Mania.

Patrick at Thoughts on Stuff says, “I could see why people would dislike this movie, admittedly it is more style than what would usually be considered substance, but in this case, the substance is the style.”

Velvet Goldmine is extravagant, outlandish and bizarre. But … this is precisely what the filmmakers were aiming for,” writes Diane Selkirk at Apollo Movie Guide.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Concert · Music · Unconventional romance

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kimberly // Sep 6, 2007 at 11:01 pm

    Now this is a Miramax film I have seen and I love it! I guess I was one of the few who paid to see it in a movie theater (I saw it twice!) but it was made to be seen on the big screen and I’ve been a fan of Todd Haynes since seeing Poison back in ’91.

    The musical numbers in Velvet Goldmine are terrific and I love the way it was shot by Haynes. He really did a great job of recreating the ’70s and ’80s. The whole Bowie/Iggy love triangle is played out with a lot of flair and fun. I thought Bale was really terrific as the journalist Arthur Stuart and I could relate to him a lot since I was a small-time musical journalist myself in the ’80s for zines.

    I couldn’t agree more with this statment:

    Velvet Goldmine conjures a trippy, dreamlike feel that engages the imagination. The film suggests that this is exactly what made glam rock unique in the first place.

    Very true! Along with Dancer in the Dark, Velvet Goldmine is easily my favorite musical of the past 10+ years.

    I constantly butt heads with other people who hate this movie and I have no idea why. I really enjoyed your write-up about it and it’s nice to see that I’m not the only person who enjoyed this terrific film.

    I don’t know a lot about the Weinsteins, but after reading your pieces about Miramax they sound like rather nasty people.

  • 2 Moviezzz // Sep 8, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    I saw VELVET only once on video and have been meaning to see it again.

    I’m not much of a Haynes fan (SAFE is one of my least favorite of the 90s) but really loved this film. I think about it quite a bit.

    I will have to see it again.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Sep 8, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    Kimberly: Next time you’re at the library, check out Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures. It’s about Redford/Sundance, Miramax and the indie film movement in the ’90s and is a terrific read.

    Harvey Weinstein is perhaps the last movie mogul of the 20th century; many agree that he loves movies, knows how to market movies, has produced some of the best movies of the last quarter century, while in the process, alienating filmmakers with his personality and tactics. Sort of like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II.

    Biskind seems to insinuate that Velvet Goldmine didn’t work, but I agree with you, I thought this film was fantastic. The approach Haynes took was creative, but at no point in the film was I bored or thinking “This shit ain’t workin.”

    I’m flattered by your comment. Thank you! Small time journalists rule!

    Moviezzz: What’s sad is that Miramax jettisoned Velvet Goldmine so thoroughly that Haynes was not even asked to provide an audio commentary for the DVD, which other than not being panned and scanned, is devoid of extras.

    I feel the same way about Safe that you do about this film. I need to see it again. Haynes’ approach to his movies is alien, but it’s like that really cool, green skinned alien that was trying to seduce Capt. Kirk on that episode of Star Trek. I just rolled with the creative audacity of it.

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