Come as you aren’t

Todd Haynes' new movie is about the transformative power of glam.

Which came first: the image or the movement? It’s hard to divorce Velvet Goldmine, filmmaker Todd Haynes’ stylized, highly entertaining fictional account of the rise and fall of glam rock, from the hyping of a glam-rock revival that began with the film’s Best Artistic Contribution prize at Cannes. One art-house movie, albeit a swoonily transfixing one, has sent the cultural-industrial complex scurrying to resurrect a 25-year-old subculture.

Haynes’ film has already been the subject of a W cover story discussing its pre-release influence on fashion designers. The magazine’s October issue also cites the success of Marilyn Manson’s Bowie-indebted/inspired Mechanical Animals, cross-dressing comedian Eddie Izzard, and the off-Broadway show Hedwig and the Angry Inch in its trumpeting of glam rock’s return. W is, of course, referring to glam-rock clothing, since the musical side of glam never really went away. Its essentials informed subsequent subcultures, from punk and new wave to lipstick metal and goth. Like punk, glam was a brief subcultural moment that cast long shadows (e.g., Prince and Madonna); Velvet Goldmine boasts glam tributes from such non-glittery performers as Grant Lee Buffalo, Shudder to Think, and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Then there are lesser-known bands like Vaganza, Spacehog, and Nancy Boy, all toiling at their own glam revivals for most of the ’90s.

Velvet Goldmine

directed by Todd Haynes

starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ewan McGregor, Toni Collette, Christian Bale

starts Friday at the Egyptian

Just as fashion designers troll for ideas on the streets of major boho neighborhoods in New York and London, the media force-fertilizes any cultural seedling that manages to push its way to the surface. So even if Velvet Goldmine doesn’t receive widespread acclaim, expect to see rip-offs of Sandy Powell’s costumes coming soon to a boutique near you. This top-down revival makes an odd kind of sense for glam; after all, the Spiders from Mars originally called themselves the Hype. Glam-rockers Bowie, Roxy Music, T. Rex, and Iggy Pop were the first pop stars who didn’t feel obliged to fake being one of the people; instead, they encouraged the people to join them on the metaphorical stage. With the right attitude and a little lamé, their fans, too, could be stars.

Since it’s all about surfaces, Velvet Goldmine (named for Bowie’s “Space Oddity” b-side) not only makes the ideal catalyst for the current fashion-industry frenzy but also reflects glam’s original statement; it’s as fantastical, theatrical, and all-enveloping as Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona. You leave the theater remembering not what happened, but how everything looked.

Reconfigured as Brian Slade (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), Bowie is the absentee cipher at the center of Velvet Goldmine. The Citizen Kane­like plot involves a reporter’s search for the long-missing Slade, who may have faked his own death, but this skinny story line is really just an excuse for Haynes to delve into the nature of fame, fandom, love, sex, and rebellion.

A fantastical intro posits the androgynous PYTs of early ’70s London as the offspring of space aliens by way of Oscar Wilde, and then we’re thrown into the film’s “present day,” an exceedingly bleak 1984 (another nod to Bowie, whose Diamond Dogs LP was a kind of concept album based on Orwell’s 1984). Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a Brit reporter at an American newspaper, has buried his previous life as a glam fan. When he’s assigned the Slade story, his long-squelched memories come hurtling back. Interweaving the vivid narrative of Slade’s career with Stuart’s jolting flashbacks, Haynes captures glam’s thin line between performer and fan—and pop music’s exhilarating capacity to open doors to a larger world.

Meyers’ Slade is easily eclipsed by Ewan McGregor, who’s given the difficult job of amalgamating Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Kurt Cobain into the hell-bent life force of American rocker Curt Wild. Unlike rock ‘n’ roll, acting is a mostly cerebral undertaking, and that’s the problem with Velvet Goldmine: No actor can (or should) possess the big, dumb charisma of a rock star.

Yet this discrepancy also suits the subject. Glam was by definition contrived, so if Slade appears airbrushed, and Wild doesn’t have quite the junkie-grubbiness of his real-life counterparts—well, authenticity is irrelevant to this story. Devotees of what Bowie has called the “blue-denim truth” will have to check their magnifying glasses at the door, since Haynes depicts the glam scene’s participants in their own self-image—all decadence, perfect makeup, and Wildean wit. For example, a press conference with Slade and Wild becomes an elaborate ritual as strictly choreographed as a saraband in the court of Louis XIV.

Working off Cobain’s image in particular, Haynes connects glam’s transformative possibilities to rock’s overall message of rebellion. Glam’s androgyny and outrageous, cabaret-style visuals were always bigger in Britain than in the states, which is odd given American culture’s glorification of the self-made (wo)man. Dress like it and you can be it—it’s a very American credo.