Velvet Goldmine: The Search (And Destroy) for Identity in Film
As a young man I was completely obsessed with a short-lived rock’n’roll phenomenon from the early 70s, one that somewhat inexplicably morphed and mutated into the Hair Metal of the 80s. It was called Glam Rock … it wasn’t just David Bowie, Iggy Pop, T Rex, Roxy Music, and Lou Reed … it was Silverhead and Eno and Jobriath and Gary Glitter. It was boys in women’s clothes and makeup, everything shiny and dangerous, elaborate and alien.
I came up in the 90s hardcore punk scene, a scene with no shortage of bold masculinity. Big pants, big shirts, big statements were the go-to straightedge aesthetic—so when my roulette of rebellion began spinning again to find my next musical obsession it was Glam I landed on. What a world I had found … with so much to explore.
It was 1998 and the universe seemed to be trying to tell me something. I wouldn’t discover it until it hit the video store shelves, a cut-up collage homage to the Glam era shining on the silver screen: Todd Haynes’ celebratory Velvet Goldmine. On paper I should passionately hate this movie—it takes music I love, that has great personal meaning to me, and has actors recreating it, and mixing it all up … but Todd Haynes is a masterful filmmaker, and Velvet Goldmine is a fawning love letter rather than an opportunist exploitation. Haynes’ deep appreciation and passion for the subject is clearly evident. It’s often described as more of a painting than a movie—I agree, painted in a glorious palette of glitter and sparkle and all the necessary dirt.
Much of the movie (and Glam in general) is about sexual liberation and exploration. As a young dude brought up in the sexually repressive environment of 80s taboo-wary evangelicalism, this was just the kind of danger I was looking for. But it wasn’t about the act of sex; I was still years away from that. It was about identity and role reversals and culture. I was 15 when I bought my first pair of women’s pants. I wore a silver sequin tailed tuxedo with homemade sparkling platform shoes and hot pink star-shaped glasses to my senior prom. Then I grew my hair out, dressed in all kinds of women’s clothes, studied fashion design, regularly went to drag shows, and carried a pink nylon purse. Some friends and I were physically threatened by some good ole boys (actually full grown country men) at a county fair after a male friend of mine kissed me in the line for the whirligig—it was absolutely terrifying but also oddly exhilarating. True Glam had expired a quarter century before but I wanted to bring that spirit back. I wanted to find myself in it. I spent many nights in my freshman dorm working on my GeoCities website: proudly coined Neo-Glam. It was a manifesto of style and substance. Luckily, no trace of it can be found today. I still worshipped the original glam music, but also pushed a then-current British Glam movement—bands like Pulp and The London Suede.
I quit college to pursue a life of Rock’n’Roll and tart myself up as much as I could get away with, deeply influenced by another band briefly brushed into the Velvet Goldmine cyclorama, The New York Dolls. This sort of thing went on well into my 20s. The experimentation, the fight against norms, and the partying, the decadence, the pursuit of the Rock’n’Roll dream, and in it, meaning, identity, purpose. A mission to change the world. Much like Ewan McGregor’s character (a gay mashup of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop named Curt Wild) says near the end of the film: “We set out to change the world, ended up just changing ourselves … What’s wrong with that? … Nothing, if you don’t look at the world.” Wide-eyed, life’s possibilities and scope appeared without limit. I could change myself, make myself, and set fire to the world at the same time. While my vision may have been a bit overblown, it’s a come-of-age I won’t regret. Velvet Goldmine personifies this experience for me. Admittedly a romantic nostalgia for an era gone before I even existed, it still provided a shimmering path through the shadowy sides of adolescence.
So, to address the elephant in the room, yes, Velvet Goldmine is very much about gay culture, gay identity, homosexuality, and bisexuality. Much of it kicked off in a scene where Brian Slade, the glam superstar in the film, comes out at a press conference, much like David Bowie in interviews with both Melody Maker and Playboy at the time. Am I gay? Or was I in my early 20s? The short answer is no … but at the time I really didn’t know what it would feel like to be gay, or bi-sexual. I knew I loved the culture and the product, and a part of me really wanted to discover that I was gay. Finally, an identity other than just ‘weirdo’. A cause to get behind, to defend. Alas, despite my beliefs of sexual fluidity and spectrum, I wasn’t actually gay. But that didn’t change my love for Glam and no film has ever come as close to portraying that love than Velvet Goldmine. Well, maybe DA Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars, but that’s another story for another day.