I'm going to try and keep this one relatively brief, because I plan on writing a much, much longer piece on this film at some later point. Why, then, should I even bring up Velvet Goldmine? Because it's that damn good.
At one point in Velvet Goldmine, a pretentious young glam-rock fan declares to an even younger, much greener glam kid that he "prefers impressions to ideas."
This film does not prefer impressions to ideas. This is a film whose ideas are so strong, so variate, and yet all in service of a single point-of-view.
This film says more about the power of music and the love of music than the plethora of factory-made musical biopics that are trotted out every year by the studios.
The reception to Velvet Goldmine has been fairly cool and unenthusiastic since it was first released in 1998, and I think I know the reason. The film is often, mostly inaccurately, described as a movie about David Bowie, and Goldmine is a weak biography if viewed as one. But it's not a biography, certainly not one of Bowie. This film tells you very little about what makes David Bowie tick, but it's not trying to!
Mild spoilers follow
Taking a page from Citizen Kane, Haynes constructs a story about a journalist (Christian Bale) tasked with tracking down a British rock star named Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who disappeared ten years earlier. Bale, interviewing Slade's former manager, his ex-wife, and a fellow rocker played by Ewan McGregor, attempts to piece together a profile of the vanished Slade.
But the difference between Goldmine and Kane is all the difference in the world, because the reporter in Citizen Kane is a faceless non-entity, an absolute cipher who takes the place of an omniscient but colorless narrator whose sole purpose is the provide entry into Kane's life. This is not the case in Velvet Goldmine. Kane is about Kane, but Velvet Goldmine is not about David Bowie, or even his fictional counterpart "Brian Slade," but it is entirely about its reporter character Arthur Stuart, who is not the cipher you might have thought he was walking into the film.
Todd Haynes' films can be perplexing to first-time viewers. I know that I initially was not a fan of this film. It seemed muddled, unfocused. It was not until repeat viewing that I realized that it wasn't the film that was unfocused, it was me, or rather, that my focus was on the wrong point. As soon as I realized what Velvet Goldmine was all about, all the pieces fell into place. I fell in love with its heart, its stellar use of music, its image-based mode of storytelling, and its portrayal of a world left untapped by most movies.
Haynes has said that in his films, the emotions of the storytelling always must come first. Hearing this would no doubt baffle some of his critics, who often describe his films as being about concepts over emotions, more semiotics lessons than stories worth telling. I think this may be because Haynes' movies are so rich with ideas, so clearly conceptual deep in a way that few films are, that they confound those who focus solely on the ideas, not looking at the emotional through-lines that lay right in front of them, through which the films can truly be understood, and loved.