With gobs of exuberant detail and loads of eyelined panache, Todd Haynes presents a forlorn tribute to a short-lived musical movement from the 1970s in 'Velvet Goldmine.' With so much visual ecstasy and fanciful frilliness on display, there is no mistaking Haynes's sheer love in making this movie about the underground glam-rock era. Haynes, who co-wrote the script with film editor James Lyons, also seems determined to tell a rather unique tale of the ways in which music in general is a significant driving force to our sense of freedom and expression during our young, formative years. Unfortunately, this desire to bite off more than it can chew turns into a shortcoming as it struggles to maintain a singular objective amongst the story's glittered lavishness.
Much like the flamboyant glam scene itself, the musical drama is a loud, bombastic visual feast of daydreams and fantasy attempting to transcend the material world for no real purpose. Though overflowing with lots of great music, 'Velvet Goldmine' is ultimately an empty spectacle of elaborate theatricality thinly threaded together by a journalist solving the reasons behind a failed publicity hoax. But before writing it off as a failure, we have to wonder if it's also not Haynes's intentions in a film about a rock movement that celebrated life as a larger, socially-invented empty spectacle. Concerts themselves are mostly staged and often pretentious performances serving the ego of the musical act. These particular artists merely embraced the illusion and found it unabashedly liberating, discovering a kind of sexual revolution writhing beneath.
Haynes appears to take an interesting approach to his own material, focusing our attention more on the love of the genre and scene rather than immersing us in what it must have been like to be a part of it. On the surface, the plot follows, via flashbacks, the rise of a glam star named Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers offering little beyond impersonation), closely modeled after legendary rocker David Bowie but also displaying a few touches of Marc Bolan of T.Rex. As with the Herald reporter (Christian Bale) investigating the disappearance of Slade, we're always at a distance from the main events — denied access to the heart and essence of the movement but given small glimpses through mostly closed doors. Much of what is revealed centers around the relationship of the pop icon and Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), who greatly takes after influential punk-rocker Iggy Pop.
As we continue to learn more about their intimate friendship and little about their collaboration as musicians, audiences are left wondering "so what?" The only hints we're given for answering the question are again glimpses of these fictional artists succumbing to their admitted empty spectacles — falling for their own illusions like Slade's disappointment that Wild isn't the artist he imagined. To a greater degree, and the aspect Haynes probably should have explored further, our answer lies in the journalist made to remember how the music personally affected his life. Bale provides the best performance of the ensemble as a young man conflicted and confused by his sexuality, but finding comfort and liberation in the exploits of a musician promising a society without shame and guilt. This subplot brings a good deal of emotion and drama to an otherwise empty script.
As a huge disciple of rock history, the aspect which impresses most in Haynes's 'Velvet Goldmine' is how it mythologizes the glam-rock scene by closely following the history of its biggest star. Other than Slade taking after Bowie, Slade's career-breaking stunt comes from Bowie's Ziggy Stardust album, which brought the British musician lots of fame and attention. Bowie's friendship with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, who did actually receive shock-therapy in order to discourage homosexuality, is clearly on display here. And during the latter half of the 70s, as the glam scene faded away, Bowie was in constant experimentation and reinvention mode. In 1983 and 84, which is when the film coincidently opens, Bowie reinvented himself once again and found world-wide superstardom and commercial success with 'Let's Dance,' 'Modern Love' and 'China Girl,' which he co-wrote with Iggy Pop.
This is partly the reason why I have difficulty dismissing the musical drama, as Haynes creatively captures this small history of an inventive genre and scene. However, it's also easy to see where the film fails and could have used a great deal of improvement — possibly by bringing Bale's character's story arc more to the forefront. Taken for what it is, 'Velvet Goldmine' is an ambitious and quite imaginative piece of filmmaking, but sadly not the stuff music lovers rejoice in.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate Home Entertainment brings 'Velvet Goldmine' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD25 disc and housed inside a blue eco-case with new cover art on the front. At startup, viewers can enjoy a series of skippable trailers, followed by a retro-looking main menu with full-motion clips and music.
'Velvet Goldmine' glitters across the screen with an average AVC-encoded transfer, sadly looking like it was made from a recycled DVD master.
Although showing some noticeable improvement in overall resolution and quality, the picture also comes with some softness and mostly passable fine-object definition. Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, it also displays evidence of artificial sharpening in a few scenes and mild ringing which almost reaches the point of blatant edge enhancement. Close-ups reveal a bit of good texture on the faces of actors, but shadow details suffer terribly for most of the film's runtime. Contrast is rather boring but generally well-balanced, while black levels are run-of-the-mill and mostly grayish in tone with lots of murkiness. The real shocker is a color palette lacking any true brilliance and vividness, which for a movie about the glam rock movement is hugely disappointing.
All things considered, things could be much worst, but they could also be much, much better than this.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has more to offer than the video, though attentive listeners, particularly the fans, will likely be left somewhat wanting.
For a contemporary movie about 70s rock, one would reasonably expect the songs to knock your socks off. Instead, we get a lossless mix that's good with plenty to enjoy, but it never overwhelms viewers or engulf them with the feel of being at a concert. A few discrete effects scatter into the back speakers to create some ambiance, but the music doesn't spread too far from the front except for a bit of echoing. Most of the time, the high-rez track remains in the soundstage, which is fine. Channel separation is nicely balanced, generating a wide image with fluid movement and a clean, crisp mid-range so that the songs enjoy a decently detailed presentation. Low bass is generally strong and responsive, providing great depth and realism to the music.
The one major issue is an average to poor dialogue reproduction. Vocals and a few lines tend to be drowned out by the rest of the sounds or simply come in too low to be clearly heard. Doesn't happen much, but when it does, it's disappointing, making the whole event good but somewhat troubled.
Lionsgate corrects the past barebones DVD release by offering at least something new for this Blu-ray edition.
Writer and director Todd Haynes pays tribute to a short-lived musical movement from the 70s in 'Velvet Goldmine.' An overtly flamboyant and ambitious film surrounding the relationship of a David Bowie-like pop idol and an Iggy Pop-like rocker, played amusingly by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor. The story also features the music genre's affect on one self-liberating young teen portrayed by Christian Bale. The Blu-ray arrives with average though improved picture quality and a good audio presentation. An audio commentary makes up the supplemental material, which means fans are the most likely to buy but others can at least give it a rent.