Self consciously structured in the style of Citizen Kane, the 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-Myers). As he interviews surviving members of Slade's coterie, like his first manager and ex-wife Mandy (Toni Colette), Stuart begins to piece together a fragmented portrait of the stack-soled Icarus which reveals not only the back stage egos and betrayals of Slade's hedonist milieu, but a radical moment of cultural liberation when gender bending role play and sexual experimentation escaped from gay sub-culture and into the mainstream.
Eschewing the earnest, fact-grubbing fandom of the standard rock documentary, Haynes chooses to dress up reality. Along with the Bowie-like Slade, pastiche personalities include leather-trousered rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), Bryan Ferry clone Jack Fairy (Osheen Jones) and manipulative manager Jerry Divine (Eddy Izzard).
While Velvet Goldmine is an essential feast of false eyelashes, feather boas and delicious decadence, Haynes's refusal to conform to the biopic's traditional chronology does throw up some problems. After an inspired prologue, which outs Oscar Wilde as the great-grandfather of glam, Velvet Goldmine's narrative scatters in all directions, some rather choppy editing trying to reconcile myriad themes and storylines. Slade's relationship with his wife Mandy and drug-fuelled affair with Wild are compelling, Haynes's attempts to imagine an Orwellian 1980s from the perspective of the Seventies less so. Indeed, Bale's everyman 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.
Despite significant flaws - like some uneven performances - Velvet Goldmine is an ambitious and sometimes brilliant musical, which captures the atmosphere and mood of its time with spectacular style and imagination, transcending today's kitsch 1970s revival to mine more fundamental issues of identity and personal freedom.