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Film: As if to the glamour born

The phenomenon of glam rock burned briefly but brightly in the early Seventies before expiring shortly after, face down in its powder puff, asphyxiated by the fumes from its own glitter nail-varnish. Todd Haynes' glorious new film, Velvet Goldmine, is both a celebration and an analysis of the era, though it spreads its net too wide to be pigeonholed as a simple rock'n'roll biopic. Even the timescale of the picture, which runs from the birth of Oscar Wilde to the cultural wasteland of the mid- Eighties, doesn't give any indication of the breadth of its vision, or the extent of its imagination. The past and the future are re-invented and re-imagined: when we reach 1984, the year is located in a parallel universe where bland rock stars endorse sinister presidents. And when Oscar Wilde is delivered to his parents' doorstep in 1854, he arrives not by stork but by flying-saucer. Later, that same alien spacecraft will deposit its cargo of glitter onto two young men having sex on a rooftop in Seventies London. No, Toto: we're definitely not in Kansas anymore.

As befits a film about the friction between appearances and what they conceal and reveal, Velvet Goldmine has a deceptively simple surface which borrows the classical narrative convention of the quest for truth. Arthur (Christian Bale) is a young English journalist in Eighties New York who is commissioned to write a feature on Brian Slade, a glam-rock superstar who vanished after faking his own assassination. Arthur's investigation uncovers a gallery of eccentric characters revealed in flashback: Brian himself (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a Bowie-esque idol in futuristic jump- suits and feather boas; his mentor, Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), a self- destructive American rocker in the Lou Reed/Iggy Pop mould; and the androgynous Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland), who swans around London being glamorous and decadent but serving little actual purpose, which was one of the points of glam, after all.

The film flirts with rock history so blatantly that it often seems to come within centimetres of a lawsuit. But one of Haynes' main arguments is that there was actually no sense of any governing reality within glam. The interplay between truth and fiction, art and life, was so pronounced that it eradicated all traces of a fixed, consistent present. The very fabric of Velvet Goldmine replicates this idea: form and content function in such inseparable, mutually enriching harmony that the movie is as much an imitation of glam's essence as a dissection of it.

This is significant on every level of the film. Visually, it incorporates a collision of garish visual styles and techniques, with the cinematographer Maryse Alberti being particularly fond of those ugly zooms so prevalent in early Seventies film-making. The sterile, science-fiction look of Haynes' last film, Safe, reflected its subject matter, and in the same way Haynes draws on the ragbag, magpie fashions of glam to define the style and even the structure of Velvet Goldmine. There are visual allusions to specific shots in Performance and Jubilee, and explicit references to Haynes' own short films, Dottie Gets Spanked and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Early on, he even presents a brief tour of the components which combined to create glam, including music-hall cross-dressing and the effete rock'n'roll of Little Richard.

If you sense chaos and incoherence, that's because you're meant to. Haynes is loyal to his subject in every frame of the movie, from the furious flurry of scenes to the virtually continuous soundtrack, which mixes actual songs from the glam period with covers of glam songs, and then throws in a few specially written, sweetly parodic numbers for good measure. On top of this, actual pop groups appear in the film playing other, fictional pop groups. Originality and imitation are fused so that divisions between the two become irrelevant.

This extends to the conception of the characters. Angie Bowie, for one, could sue for the resemblance between her and Brian's wife, Mandy - that is, if the Australian actress, Toni Collette, hadn't made her so ferociously likeable. During one scene, Brian and Curt cavort to the song "Satellite of Love", and are even caught singing along at one point - singing along to a song performed by David Bowie and Lou Reed, the artists upon whom Brian and Curt themselves are based.

That Haynes has deliberately drawn on rock'n'roll mythology is especially pertinent given that the movie's main theme is the nature of story-telling and illusion. Any similarities between Velvet Goldmine and Citizen Kane are by no means coincidental: like Welles, Haynes underlines the futility in attempting to define anything as complex as a human being. The film makes no attempt at consistency. Arthur's discovery of Brian's whereabouts is triggered by him recognising a face on television - but it's a face that he has never actually seen before. This might have disrupted the plausibility of the picture, if it weren't already a spaghetti junction of deliberate contradictions. It's a very daring and almost Cocteau-esque attempt to sabotage all notions of a solid reality.

Many of the flashbacks reveal events which the person having the flashback could not possibly have witnessed. In one of the picture's most audacious sequences, Mandy has a flashback to a party at which she, Brian and Curt were present; within that flashback, we see Brian and Curt performing on stage, and Arthur at home drooling over a photo in the NME of that same performance. At another point, we are jolted out of a montage of the highlights in Brian's career when the image suddenly burns in the projector and we realise that we have been watching a film that is being watched by Arthur.

Most strikingly, the picture has no real central character. It begins with a solemn voiceover by the actress Janet McTeer, which establishes the story's mythical properties, and seems to be guiding us toward the tale of the young Jack Fairy. Ten minutes in, the movie abandons McTeer's narration and shifts away from Fairy to introduce us to Arthur, whose own voiceover is directed at an anonymous "you", before moving between a brace of other narrators. The closest that the film comes to editorialising is in its parting shot at optimism. Haynes' image of uniqueness being handed out to advance the human race is symbolised in the emerald brooch which appears out of nowhere at the beginning of the film like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and ends up in Arthur's hands. The sense of hope would not be so exhilarating if Velvet Goldmine itself didn't represent just such a concept: a magnificent, jubilant firework launched into the future to show us the magic of which cinema is capable.

The rest of this week's films are reviewed on page 12