Todd Haynes has recently solidified himself as a connoisseur of queer cinema and rock and roll. However, before his 2021 documentary The Velvet Underground, there was Velvet Goldmine. Sitting at a mere 36k views on IMDb and about 53k views on Letterboxd, Velvet Goldmine is unfortunately one of the most overlooked 90s masterpieces. That being said, its underwatched nature makes a lot of sense.
Velvet Goldmine is not a palatable film to general audiences by any means. In fact, if you’re not queer, into camp, and have a strong affinity for rock music, there is an extremely high possibility you will hate it. Despite coming out in 1998, Velvet Goldmine is a queer film that unapologetically gives 0 sh*ts. Haynes doesn’t care about appealing to the viewer; his sole focus is telling this story the way he believes it deserves to be told. He doesn’t care how absurd, graphic, alienating, and gay his movie is. And he doesn’t care about explaining it; Velvet Goldmine just is. The editing is a headache, often nonsensical, and the film overall is really quite bizarre. Yet somehow, Velvet Goldmine is both one of the most accurate depictions of the experience and one of the greatest movies ever made.
The plot doesn’t even make total sense, but damn does it work. Velvet Goldmine follows British reporter Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), who is tasked with learning the story behind one of the most influential musicians of the sexual revolution, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and his faked assassination. Arthur winds up drawn into the lives of his wife HERNAME Slade (Toni Collette) and his best friend/former lover Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). In my opinion, though, the most important part of the movie is Arthur’s relationship with his sexuality. What this movie gets right about the queer experience is that a lot of it is painful pining and that sense of loneliness. Almost every queer teenager can recall looking up to a figure in the media for assurance regarding their sexuality. So as this film tells us about Brian and Curt’s tumultuous relationship, it also shines a spotlight onto just how they affected Arthur and his comfortability with his identity. As Stuart gets deeply involved with the lives of Wild and Slade, he becomes happier and that feeling of isolation that has haunted him for 10 years finally begins slipping away.
Velvet Goldmine is over the top in its visuals. It cuts in and out of flashbacks and music videos at an alarming rate. There are almost too many feathers and colors within. And honestly, it occasionally feels like Haynes just added things to add things. But despite its excess (or perhaps even because of it), this film at its core is deeply intimate. A major reason for this is how important Brian and Curt are to Arthur’s sexual awakening. At a time when bisexuality was shameful, they flaunted theirs. This leads to one of the most memorable and iconic scenes of the film, where after Brian opens up about his sexuality, an excited Arthur jumps and screams “That’s me, Dad!”.
Speaking of which, while I might sound insane for this, I think Arthur Stuart is easily Bale's best performance. He has never shied away from taking challenging roles, so the role of Arthur isn’t anywhere near his most demanding. However, it does require the most reflection from him. Arthur is a man haunted by his past, but through his interactions with Brian and Curt, slowly becomes hopeful for the future. What makes Bale truly unbelievable here is his facial expressions. The pain on his face is unmatchable, and any scene where he cries is gut-wrenching. Rhys-Meyers and McGregor are also unbelievable. As established as an actor McGregor is, you once never feel you are watching a performance of his. With the visuals and the pure camp of it all (I’m struggling to wrap my head around the idea that any actor in this movie is heterosexual), Curt Wild feels real.
It’s hard to imagine this as a film from 1998, let alone one that got any sort of awards traction (Sandy Powell received an Oscar nomination in 1999 for designing this film’s costumes). The sheer “fuck off I’m gay” attitude it bursts at the seams with would be shocking to audiences even today. Despite the 1970s setting being essential to the narrative, the story is timeless as there will never be a lack of queer young adults trying to figure out who they are alongside glamorous idols trying to do the same thing. I personally feel like no movie gets me the way Velvet Goldmine does, and I know many who have seen it agree. While I do think this film is overlooked, I am certain its cult classic nature will allow it to reach the people it needs to for years to come. Bravo, Todd Haynes. Bravo.