Edinburgh Festival `98: Beneath the glitter lies an awful lot of gold

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The Independent Culture
SPARKLING AND spinning like a disco glitter ball, Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine is a scintillating reflection on the glam rock scene of the Seventies. Self-consciously structured in the style of Citizen Kane, the film's mock biopic sees journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) abandoning a bleak Eighties "present" to research a retrospective feature on Seventies pop icon Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). As he interviews surviving members of Slade's coterie, Stuart pieces together a portrait of the stack-soled Icarus that reveals not only Slade's hedonistic milieu but also a radical moment of cultural liberation when gender-bending role play and sexual experimentation escaped from gay sub-culture into the mainstream.

Eschewing the earnest fact-grubbing fandom of the standard rock documentary, Haynes chooses to dress up reality in a flamboyant fictionalisation. Among the pastiche personalities are leather-trousered rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), Brian Eno clone Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland) and manipulative manager Jerry Divine (Eddie Izzard).

The film is a feast of false eyelashes, feather boas and delicious decadence. However, the refusal to conform to traditional chronology does throw up some problems. After an inspired prologue, which situates Oscar Wilde as the great grandfather of glam's subversive aestheticism, Velvet Goldmine's narrative scatters in all directions. Slade's relationship with his wife, Mandy, and drug-fuelled affair with Wild are compelling, Haynes' attempts to imagine an Orwellian Eighties from the perspective of the Seventies less so. Indeed, Bale's journalist, who should provide a thread of continuity, proves one of the weakest links in the film, his parallel journey from surburban repression to glam groupie an extraneous contrivance.

The decade-hopping narrative also allows little room for psychological depth. Given the gorgeous superficiality of the characters, this is not too damaging to the film - although the uneven performances are.

However, despite the flaws, Velvet Goldmine is an ambitious and sometimes brilliant musical that captures the mood of its time with spectacular style.

This review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper