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When writer-director Todd Haynes was deepest into the making of Velvet Goldmine, his mash note to the glam-rock era, he sported a Ziggy Stardust haircut and shiny Lurex togs he had bought in London flea markets; on the cover of a recent Village Voice, he was shirtless, adorned with feather boa and makeup. But for the promotion tour that brings him to Washington, he’s toned it down a bit. The filmmaker has a feathery shag, a long-sleeved T-shirt with contrasting stitching, and platform sneakers. Still very ’70s, but then, Haynes is entitled: He missed it the first time around.
“I was a little too young for it when it hitnot that it really hit the States the way it did in the U.K,” recalls the 37-year-old California native, whose previous films include Poison and Safe. “I remember encountering it at the time, sort of traces of its presence sneaking into the comfort of suburban life on the West Coast. And being kind of disquieted by it, a little bit disturbed by the image of Bowie on the cover of Aladdin Sane, this creepy androgynous mask. I kind of knew I wasn’t up for it, and I’d have to get to it later.”
Later came about eight years ago, when Haynes and film editor James Lyons began devising the story that would become Velvet Goldmine. The movie is named for a lesser-known Bowie song, and its central story chronicles the relationship between bisexual rockers Brian Slade (modeled on Bowie and played by young Irish actor Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and Curt Wild (a lot of Iggy Pop and a little Lou Reed, played by ubiquitous Scottish actor Ewan McGregor).
“They’re not meant to be Bowie and Iggy Pop in any direct way,” Haynes cautions. “They’re meant to [embody] the two strains that I think made glam rock possible: the American influence that Lou Reed is as much a part of, and that very, very British tradition. In a way, glam rock is a romance between those two, between New York and London in that period. And it was a short-lived, rocky little affair that couldn’t last but that spawned a lot of great work and interesting ideas.”
If Velvet Goldmine is not the David Bowie story, it nonetheless was originally scored to Bowie songs. “There are six Bowie numbers that were in the original script,” Haynes concedes. “And we approached him fairly early on. Michael Stipe, who is executive producer, sort of chaperoned the discussion. [Bowie] read the script many times and watched all my films on tape. He ultimately decided he would not give us permission for the songs. His manager said he was thinking of using the material for a Ziggy revue of some sort, a live stage thing. Recently, he’s been getting a lot of questions from the press as to why he didn’t give us songs and what he thinks of the film, which he hasn’t seen yet. He’s been talking about a Ziggy Stardust film that he’s planning. He’s slightly snidely saying, ‘Oh, we’ll let Velvet Goldmine be the trailer for my movie,’” Haynes laughs.
Haynes knows exactly how Slade and Wild do and don’t correspond to their real-life counterparts because “I did insane, extensive, obsessional research. It was a little tough, because I found to my surprise that there was no book on glam rock, in or out of print. I started with David Bowie and Marc Bolan biographies. The best was often [British weeklies] Melody Maker and New Musical Express from the period.
“It’s one of the most literary-inspired and film-inspired periods in rock,” he continues. “So what it entailed was retracing the steps of people like Bowie and Bryan Ferry and Brian Enotheir evolution of ideas and references. Which ultimately brought me to Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton, and films from the ’20s and ’30sold-fashioned notions of glamour, combined with that kind of late ’60s, early ’70s pop futurism, à la 2001. My challenge was to make it as stylized as possible, while still maintaining an emotional core to the story and the characters.”
Haynes, who sees the early ’70s as both an era of polysexual rock ‘n’ roll enlightenment and Hollywood’s last golden age, drew heavily on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange and Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance, a pioneering art-thriller that dealt with both the character of a decadent, androgynous rocker (played by Mick Jagger) and questions of identity. The latter, Haynes says, is “probably the single film that I looked at the most. It’s an inspiring film for me, for what I love about film. It still feels so radical in many ways.”
Still, the picture whose influence on Velvet Goldmine is most obvious is not from the ’70s. In assigning glam-fan-turned-reporter Arthur Stuart (Welsh actor Christian Bale) to reconstruct the career of the elusive Slade, Haynes emulated the narrative structure of Citizen Kane. “The one thing I knew going in was I wasn’t going to take the biopic approach and presume a kind of intimacy with the rock stars themselves,” he explains. “I really was more interested in the way their images and their work is interpreted and embellished and supplemented by the yearnings of their fanswhat we do to it, basically.
“Citizen Kane to me is the classic film that sets out to define a famous figureand fails, beautifully. That was the whole idea. How ‘Rosebud’ does not encapsulate who he is, although it’s the driving force of the narrative. So I thought that was the most appropriate way to refer to a narrative that will not tell us the truth in some simple and reductive way.”
Haynes’ new film also refers to the director’s notorious Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a now-unseeable biopic made with Barbie dolls (and without permission to use the Carpenters’ music); a scene in Velvet Goldmine playfully portrays two young girls using Barbies to act out Slade and Wild’s love affair. This moment, Haynes notes, also shows that the movie is really more about fandom than stardom.
“In a way, I think that scene with the dolls sums up what I’m doing in this film,” he says. “Which is literally holding up these icons, like these little girls, and speaking through them. And ultimately revealing more about my own interests and desires than any truths about these figures. But they inspire us, and they propel us to imagine and make up stories ourselves.”
Some of the movie’s most evocative scenes involve Arthur’s experiences as a teenage glam fan, but Haynes has heard that historically minded viewers want more about the era’s stars. “In England, I’m getting a little bit of that”he puts on a working-class British accent”‘What about Gary Glitter?’” He laughs. “This is not going to be the consummate glam-rock film for everybody, and how could anyone produce that, anyway?
“One draft of the script showed a montage of the bands that would follow Brian Slade and imitate him in a much more mainstream way, but we cut it a long time back,” he says, for both budgetary and narrative reasons.
If glam’s full history is not on the screen, much of it can be heard on the soundtrack, which features Roxy Music, Eno, Reed, Marc Bolan, Slade, and Glitter, as well as period songs performed by Teenage Fanclub, Elastica’s Donna Matthews, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Placebo’s Brian Molko, ex-Stooge Ron Asheton, former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, and many others. Stipe helped recruit many of these musicians for the project.
“I had pretty much picked the songs that I wanted to use,” Haynes remembers, “and then picked some new songs to replace the Bowie numbers that we couldn’t get. We needed to have more songs written for the film to fill those holes. Michael came up with some great suggestions for people to go to. Anyone that occurred to me to bring into the project, with Michael there, we could get to them.”
Haynes is quick to note that the R.E.M. singer “really did function as an executive producer. People think he must have just done all the music stuffwhich he became absolutely central tobut he went out and pitched the film and tried to raise money and did stuff he’d never done before. He really committed himself wholly to the project.”
Stipe was not responsible, however, for bringing D.C.-rooted quartet Shudder to Think into the mix. “That was a complete fluke,” the director says. “I was in London by this point, and Jim Lyons was cutting a film called First Love, Last Rites, and Shudder did the music for that. A script for Velvet Goldmine was kicking around the editing room, and Nathan [Larson] and Craig [Wedren] read it, and it just inspired them to write some tunes.
“So they sent me a tape of five demos that were so fantastic, really thoroughly realized, the full sort of glam treatment. And I couldn’t stop listening to these. I was getting a lot of other stuff from other people, and I didn’t know Shudder to Think, so it was really a surprise, but they are such good songs. Two of them are in the film, “Hot One” and “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon.” And then Nathan wrote that kind of fake ‘We Will Rock You’ song you only sort of hear in the background.” Haynes grins, as enthusiastic as he is amused. “It’s called ‘People Rockin’ People,’ and it’s almost too good.”Mark Jenkins