The other night I saw Velvet
Goldmine for the first time. I seem to recall that when it
came out ten years ago, it looked quite cool, but folks who had
seen it hadn't been too positive about it. I hadn't thought much
about it in the interim, but not too long ago I came home and my
flatmate was watching it. I caught the part where Ewan MacGregor
plays Iggy Pop on stage and was immediately interested. Ewan is
fully convincing and his screen character Curt Wild (geddit?) has
even more extreme added twisted back story (one can only hope that
Iggy didn't have it so bad, but maybe if I ever get round to
reading his biography, I'll find out just how close it is). It made
me want to see the rest of the film and when I found out that
writer/director Todd Haynes had done this movie I made it a
priority. I'd recently seen Haynes's Dylan 'biopic' I'm Not
There and found it flawed, but really brave and very good.
That plus Time Out some months ago had a cover feature
of their top 50 rock flicks (or something like that) and Haynes's
barbie-casted Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story had
come out on top. Synchronicity!
Today, having watched Superstar on the internet (the only way to see the short film, as its distribution suffered after Richard Carpenter sued), I can now say I've seen Haynes's music-inspired films (all within two months of each other) and it's an interesting trajectory. Superstar (which is Haynes's second film released in 1987) is certainly the most straightforward, even with the barbies. It's an easy narrative punctuated by ominous foreshadowing and illuminatingly preachy text concerning anorexia. Given the primary device, it can't help but be tongue-in-cheek ("No, we can't eat at The Source! hahaha"), but I found it a sympathetic portrayal of Karen's self-cancellation. One might assume (as Richard Carpenter probably did) that by using dolls Haynes was making fun what must have been a tragic and difficult situation, and while it may have actually been borne of financial necessity, it makes for some tender homage in a form similar to children at play. The love of children is not usually duplicitous, and similarly that affection is revealed, as in the lovingly rendered barbie-sized sets and costumes.
With Velvet Goldmine (1998), the on-screen rock stars aren't at all veiled mirrors of their real life counterparts, but in this case Haynes makes his own story using real characters instead of relying overly on their real-life stories, as so many young children are given readymade characters (like Barbie and GI Joe) complete with a look and a backstory to make their own adventures with. My main beef with this vastly entertaining and rather beautiful film is Haynes still felt the need to retain lip service to an overarching plot, which plods along between the lavish set-pieces that are full of wit and insight not least because of constant references to and quotes from Oscar Wilde, which in itself ties the set-pieces together better than the 'plot'. One short scene of Curt Wild and Brian Slade (David Bowie) musing on their love is acted by dolls in one child's voice and intentionally cliched dialogue making it an oddly touching and innocent portrayal of such a moment: gay hedonist rock star love.
Ten years later and Bob Dylan becomes the fetishised pop star in I'm Not There, made up of vignettes close and inspired to his life, the viewer's knowledge of which making the lynchpin that allows the film to roam plot free. Losing that structure seems to release even more ideas from an already imaginative director and perhaps obsessive fan. The life of Dylan is such a rich tapestry to draw from and Haynes really does that justice. He keeps a few stylistic choices (making some scenes deliberately stiffly acted, which can be a bit jarring when it's not done humourously), but it's an incredibly engaging way to tell a story and kind of makes you feel as though you're learning something about the subject as well – getting a sense of that elusive charisma that made them something special in the first place.
Turns out Haynes's first film is actually about Rimbaud, who is a poet I had recently decided to investigate. Synchronicity has dictated my next foray.