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2005-01-30, 10:50 PM

Velvet Goldmine

velvet-goldmine-poster01.jpg

My midterm paper for the class "Film, Music, Culture" which I've taken in the fall 2004 semester.

Introduction:

Velvet Goldmine, a film about glam rockers in London in the early ‘70s directed by Todd Haynes in 1998, received huge feedbacks from music lovers and movie critics, including some nominees from several prestigious movie awards. As a die-hard fan of glam rock, Todd Haynes creates a world saturated with vivid color, joyful atmosphere and hilarious music. To some extent, it’s a film about the rise and fall of glam rock scene, but it also concerns about self-discovering and sex identity.

The Story:

In 1984, a British journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), working for a New York newspaper, investigates the story about a fake assassination of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a glam rocker loosely based on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character. Used to be an enthusiastic fan of Brian Slade, he accepts this mission reluctantly and tries to figure out the current situation of his old-time pop idol.

Along his journey, Arthur remembers his own glam rock lifestyle and some bad memories related to his family. Like thousands of teenagers in England in the early ‘70s, he was also influenced by those glam rockers who held the supportive views of bisexual identity. When his father found he masturbated with Brian’s picture in his room, he left his hometown to London for accomplishing his glam rock dream.

In interviews with Brian’s first manager Cecil (Michael Feast) and his wife Mandy Slade (Toni Collette), Arthur begins to doubt the verity of this assassination. He starts wondering it was a delicate conspiracy designed by Brian himself. He gradually discovers the unseen pasts of Brian and the untold stories of glam rock. Another important figure in Velvet Goldmine is Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), a rock star from America loosely based on Iggy Pop. The sophisticated relationship between Brian and Curt structures the major part of this film.

The Myth of Glam Rock:

Glam rock is a kind of music style originated in England in the 70s. It never achieved a true success in America; however, it had significant influences on the following music trends like new wave and post punk. Unlike traditional rock planet filled with male spirits, glam rockers started to wear colorful lipsticks, nail polishes and exaggerative clothes against the tradition of the ‘60s style. Moreover, to challenge the convention of Rock’n’Roll, they defied social morals and reconstructed sexual identity. As a style which relied so heavily on image, whether the performances on the stage or the album covers are both extraordinary and full of sexual allusions. It was once an age that everything was possible.

However, some critics say glam rock never changed anything including music itself; glam rockers cared about how they looked like more than what they really sang; in other words, it was a superficial music style. Perhaps that’s why glam rock declined so fast in the music history, we can hardly find other music styles have such brief lives.

The Metaphor:

Velvet Goldmine carries countless metaphors, so we can enjoy the process of seeing this film and try to connect every clue that director gives us. First, the title of the film Velvet Goldmine comes from a single’s b-side of glam rock godfather David Bowie. Second, almost every major role in this film represents an important figure in glam rock scene: Brian Slade represents David Bowie. Brian’s image refers to the album covers of Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World (1970) and Aladdin Sane (1973); Curt Wild represents Iggy Pop. When the first time Brian meets Curt in a concert , Curt is naked on the stage and performs a spectacular gig. All his body language and performing style are just like what Iggy have done before. Jerry Divine (Eddie Izzard) represents Bowie's manager Tony DeFries. Third, even the characters’ names imply something. You can’t help wondering that Brian Slade’s first name comes from Brian Eno and Curt Wild’s first name comes from Kurt Cobain. Indeed, after seeing this film I think no one will object that if there is going to be a Nirvana’s film, Ewan McGregor will be definitely the protagonist.

Fourth, the most interesting metaphors in the film: in the fantastical prologue of Velvet Goldmine , Todd Haynes sets up a scene indicating that the English writer Oscar Wilde comes from the outer space. In Haynes’s view, Wilde is the spiritual forefather and the original prototype of those androgynous icons in the glam rock era. When Wilde says he wants to be a pop idol in the classroom , it turns our notions of a famous writer upside down. Fifth, Haynes uses pin as a symbol of glam rock’s heritage. One hundred years after the birth of Wilde, the young Brian finds this pin in the campus, which opens a whole new world for him. At the end of the film , Curt has this pin and gives it to Arthur.

Cinematography:

In order to discuss the cinematography of Velvet Goldmine, I want to employ a model created by Jon Radwan which roughly defines rock films in different genres. In this innovative model , he uses three axes, X Y and Z to create a three dimensions world. In this world, X-axis represents “Narrativity”, Y-axis “Indexicality”, and Z-axis represents “Musical Role”. In the X dimension, the right pole indicates the traditional Hollywood storytelling films which are classical and narrative. Moving to the left is anti-narrative pole, where we can see many avant-garde films made after the late sixties. Unlike traditional narrative films, these films don’t have the specific plot or character motivation; on the contrary, abstract imagery, irrational acts and symbolic events are always happening in these anti-narrative films. In the Y-axis, it’s about reality and fiction, so we can see two highly different film styles in the two poles. One is documentary, and the other is fantasy. In documentary, so called “Rockumentary”, directors try to capture the real lives around the rock stars; therefore, through the camera we can see the real accidents. On the other hand, fantasy films always take a fictional plot; no real events happening in these films, for instance, we can say animation is the ultimate fantasy style. The last dimension is Z, it depends on the function of music in the film. In diegetic film, music is synchronous sound, so protagonist performs music in the specific scenes. Most documentaries belong to this genre. On the other pole of the Z-axis is nondiegetic film. In this pole, music has no observable source within the story and is often used to create a mood or a distinctive atmosphere.

Both the storytelling style and the usage of music, Velvet Goldmine is such a complicated film that it’s hard to precisely define which genre it should belong to. If we put it in the Jon Radwan’s model, we can say, Velvet Goldmine, to some extent, is a narrative film with a fictional script but immensely based on the real incidents and figures. Todd Haynes uses the Citizen Kane-style narrative way to illustrate the story; moreover, Velvet Goldmine combines many traditional Hollywood elements, including detective film, autobiography film and musical. In addition, it doesn’t have a specific focus or plot as well. We see this film through Arthur’s point of view; however, the storytelling style jumping between present and past is a little confusing. If audiences don’t have enough background knowledge about glam rock, they will feel it difficult to understand immediately what is going on the screen.

Soundtrack:

Although Velvet Goldmine is not a perfect film, it has an absolutely fabulous soundtrack produced by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. The songs are basically divided into three categories: songs written specifically for the film, newly recorded covers of glam rock classics and original recordings from the same era including tracks by Brian Eno, Lou Reed and T-Rex. Two super groups are formed for this project: one is Venus In Furs (named from the song of Velvet Underground) which includes Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, Suede’s Bernard Butler, Grant Lee Buffalo’s Paul Kimble and Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay; the other is Wylde Rattz, loosely based on Iggy Pop’s band the Stooges, including the Stooges’ Ron Asheton, Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley.

These two magnificent groups cover songs from Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno and the Stooges; meanwhile, Scottish band Teenage Fanclub covers New York Dolls' Personality Crisis; and British band Placebo covers T-Rex’s 20th Century Boy. Besides, two stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor actually do their parts of singing in the soundtrack.

The Music:

Most part of the music in Velvet Goldmine is pre-recorded, including some glam rock classics and newly recorded cover versions; however, there are several beautiful original scores in this film as well. “So it would appear that score and pre-recorded music offer different approaches to the post-production process: one is tailored to the picture, the other has the picture tailored to it.” Robb Wright’s point is echoed in Velvet Goldmine. We can see how different these two major kinds of film music used in this film. I will discuss the distinctive aspects of Velvet Goldmine’s music in the following paragraphs.

First, the usages of classic glam rock songs. When Brian goes to New York for visiting Curt in the bar , we hear New York Doll’s Personality Crisis. The music’s function here is to establish the recognition of time and space. Because we are so familiar with this song, we can easily understand what it really wants to express: New York City in the ‘70s. In addition to locate the specific time and space, classic rock anthem can be the metaphor as well. When Curt agrees to produce records for Brian , the background music is Lou Reed’s Satellite of Love, from the album Transformer. Director uses a superb metaphor here; because we know the fact: David Bowie produced this album and after that, Lou Reed temporarily became a member of the glam rock family. At the end of the film , we also hear T-Rex’s 20th Century Boy performed on the stage, and it can evokes audiences’ nostalgia and intensify their emotions. “The fusion of these two symbolic mediums- film’s depiction of a very public, collective past and music’s evocation of the intimacies of personal recollections- is thus an extraordinarily potent device through which the practice of nostalgia is activated.” It is Ian Inglis’s point of view about the Beatles, but I think it’s also suitable for the condition of Velvet Goldmine. Actually, this film is homage for glam rock era, so it borrows hundreds of elements from that era. It doesn’t need to create anything new; it can set up the atmosphere of nostalgia precisely just by duplicating everything from that era, including music.

Second, diegetic and nondiegetic. In some gig scenes, the music is absolutely diegetic. For instance, when Brian performs 2HB in the bar and Curt performs T.V. Eye on the outdoor stage , the music is diegetic; therefore, whether the performers or the audiences can physically hear the music. Furthermore, music has multiple functions in Velvet Goldmine; we can hardly define which music is diegetic or nondiegetic in the film, because in some circumstances, like the transition of different scenes, the same music still stays on the background, thus diegetic music becomes nondiegetic music. We can find several excellent examples in the film: When Arthur plays record in his room , he can actually hear the song Hot One, but after he leaving his room to the streets, the background music is still the same. Besides, when Brian and Curt collaborate a big concert , they sing Baby’s on fire on the stage, however, as we watch the sex party through the camera, the music remains, and it ends with the scene that Arthur masturbates in his room. So, again, diegetic music becomes nondiegetic music.

Third, original score. Compared to pre-recorded songs, there are relatively fewer original scores in the film, but they play significant roles in the film. In the opening sequence , when Wilde arrives earth, the music is nondiegetic classical score, and its mysterious style is appropriate for the fantastic sequence. When Brian enters the bar on the New Year’s Eve , the background music is solemn classical music, and it successfully establishes a peace mood, which has high contrast against the rock music played inside the bar. After Brian’s entry, the nondiegetic classical score becomes diegetic rock song, and it notices audiences something will happen.

Conclusion:

Filled with music, spectacular costumes and stylish images, Velvet Goldmine is a marvelous rock film, but it is so overloaded, we are not sure where to focus our attention. Should it be on the beautiful fairy Brian Slade, American rocker Curt Wild, or journalist Arthur Stuart? There are too many focuses in the film and Todd Haynes doesn’t particularize each of them; therefore, if people who didn’t live through those periods, may have a difficult time connecting everything on the screen.

In addition, it lacks a central story line, so it looks like Todd Haynes doesn’t know where to end the film; therefore, for those people who are not manic music fans, Velvet Goldmine may a little redundant. However, it is still full of many amazing performances by the brilliant actors, and of course, the soundtrack is just terrific.

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哇賽~~
真是詳細精闢的見解
好像上了一課glam rock音樂課
也讓我想再把電影重溫一遍
看看自己還有很多沒有捕捉到的地方

PS.是不是只要念電影的都會看過Citizen Kane啊?這部片幾乎可說是很多類型電影的重要指標了

由 tiffanychin 發表於 January 31, 2005 11:22 AM

很顯然這兩部電影結構上有某種層度的相似
我小時候也寫過一篇比較大國民與絲絨金礦的報告......

我是路人,您好!

shower 發表於 February 1, 2005 10:16 PM

一直都很想看这部电影,谁知道哪里有这部电影下载?

由 soulasylum 發表於 February 4, 2005 4:05 AM

you made a small mistake that the boy found the pin in campus is not brian he's ferry

由 akila 發表於 May 17, 2009 8:30 PM