Velvet Goldmine and the Erotics of Pop

So here’s what I liked about Velvet Goldmine: there’s a moment when teenaged glam fan Arthur gets home after buying the new ‘Brian Slade’ record. He puts the record on the player and then lies on the bed, basking in the music, gazing raptly at Slade’s airbrushed, marbled body on the glossy inner sleeve. The scene is charged, muskily hormonal – you expect Arthur to flex like a whore and fall wanking to the floor (and don’t you worry, he does later) – but it’s not just Arthur’s inchoate sexual awakening that gives it this kick. For Arthur is writhing in the grip of a joyous deviance more specialised and just as potent, the fever of the pop fan as they listen to a record for the first time.

The act of giving a record its first spin is a sacred one for a type of pop lover, who wants to transfer some of the record’s power to themselves, making a myth of their own and for them alone. The camerawork hyperbolises this gloriously, zooms in on the vinyl, gorges the viewer on its sheenful blackness; the soundtrack crisply tracking the pop and whirr of the automatic dansette arm. It’s a moment as tacky as it is resonant, and it sets out Velvet Goldmine‘s stall as a fundamentally conservative film, a love letter to a particular, perhaps dated vision of pop, of pop stars. The movie is an unabashed paean to Starlust, the strange sexio-socio-dynamics of the relationship between star and fan – which in Arthur’s case turns at the films literal climax to that between fucker and fuckee, as the sky rains glitter.

Arthur’s a nice lad, rosily and goofily English in a way you don’t see anymore (check out the snub-nosed, graceless, ruddy-cheeked sweetness of 70s Pop TV audiences, then compare to today’s post-Face pop demographic and you’ll see what I mean). He comes down to London looking like a Bay city Rollers fan, faintly out of place – though as the film studiously ignores the stompier side of the glam ‘phenomenon’, you’re left not quite knowing why he’s dressing like he is. It’s just as well, though – without Arthur to ground it, the film would run the risk of turning into an airy parade of cliched decadence.

Velvet Goldmine is openly in love with London, you see, and with one facet of the English outsider tradition – that curious hedonist aestheticism which Haynes roots in Oscar Wilde and his circle, which surfaces in the twenties and thirties as cabaret romance and the naked elitism of Bloomsbury, which in turn is drawn on by Ferry and Eno, crossbred with pop art panache, turned into starcult by Bowie and then proceeds through post-punk technophilia and New Romantic aspiration, and so to the nineties and its final, invisible triumph. The corrosive self-knowledge of Cool Britannia, and the endless, numb parade of dressy club peacocks across the style and dance press’ pages – these are the twin destinations of Glam. Aestheticism on the one hand ironically commodified, on the other ruthlessly and crassly democratised: maybe it’s the knowledge of what Glam ends up as that had Velvet Goldmine leaving me vaguely queasy.

Glam’s thrills come from contrast, and not contrast with the straight (either sense) world, either: Glam admits no such enemies, it’s exciting because its art roots are as much Pop Art as anything, because it sells out so beautifully. Of course Glam Rock was Roxy and Bowie and at a pinch Lou and at a hernia-risking stretch Iggy. It was also Slade, Mott, and Suzi, and its American wing is better served by Alice and Sparks than by TV Eye (particularly a TV Eye as politely performed as Ewan MacGregor’s.) It was ridiculous, it knew it was ridiculous, it even admitted that in song (“Oh dear, Oh Gawd, Oh my, oh blimey!” as Mott sing in Saturday Gigs, reminiscing about their Hit Years): the radical thing Glam does is to realise that ridicule is nothing to be scared of.

Everybody knows this, but the temptation is always to play up the Fin De Siecle aspects at the expense of Feeling the Noize. So it is that the only hint of a beat comes with the black throb of Eno’s Baby’s On Fire, slickly remade by the film’s house band – and it works very well, but it’s hardly Rock n’ Roll Part 2. This is where the movie’s lack of permission to use David Bowie’s songs hurts it most – his particular genius was to combine a concern for art-cred and love of high concept (as befitted an ex-mime) with a greed for success that led him unerringly to the tastiest pop riffs and the largest of beats. The wheyish imitations served up by ‘Brian Slade’ are mildly diverting pastiche pieces, but basically won’t do.

Not that Velvet Goldmine is a bad film, not at all – it stuck with me and is stuffed with neat set-pieces and diverting moments, and even its limited pop sense is often canny: Brian Slade’s be-dressed festival turn is a sharp take on Bowie’s nowt-so-queer-as-folk-rock phase, and the unspeaking Jack Fairy is a compelling creation, not least because of actor Micko Westmoreland’s astonishingly shaped head. And I loved, in the end, all the ambition and conceit, the spaceships and emerald brooches and palare subtitles and hilarious if completely anachronistic videos.

What stayed with me most, though, maybe wasn’t even ‘meant’ to be there. If Velvet Goldmine has a secret to tell then its secret is this: the film is Todd Haynes’ love song to the dead Kurt. Ewan MacGregor’s character, Curt Wild, is analagous to Iggy Pop, but he looks more and more like his Seattle namesake as the film goes on, and by the final, 80s-set scenes the resemblance is total: McGregor’s eyes, even, have that terrible passive melancholy that Cobain’s have in a lot of his final pictures, where he looked like an animal waiting to be put down. These final scenes, where Wild makes peace with his past and gives Arthur a brooch, before walking away, contented and pretty, into the city night, seemed to have nothing to do with Glam or Bowie or Iggy – they felt like a film-maker obsessed with pop stars writing his own happy ending to the only new pop star story the 90s gave us. Maybe not: maybe – to use a horrible, unglamourous phrase – I’m reading too much into it (I don’t even like Nirvana, for one thing). But Velvet Goldmine is, after all, a film about the ineffable importance of image, of what and who you look like. I don’t think I’m wrong.