The golden age of glitter-rock gets the "Big Chill" treatment in "Velvet Goldmine," a fond tribute that makes us pine for a bygone musical movement ... but not always for the right reasons.
Essentially the David Bowie story with the names changed, "Goldmine" revolves around Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an ersatz Ziggy Stardust who fakes his own onstage assassination. It's an obvious parody of the infamous "retirement" announcement Bowie made at the Hammersmith Odeon. The outrage that greeted that real-life bombshell is nothing compared to the public fury that erupts when Slade's fans learn that his murder was only a publicity stunt. They turn their backs on him en masse, and he experiences a quick slide into obscurity.
Ten years later, British journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is assigned to find the vanished icon. The resulting manhunt forces Stuart to re-examine the effect that the glam era had on him during his own formative years as a Slade-obsessed, sexually confused English teen. He also takes a closer look at one of Slade's successors, a ridiculously coifed, Reagan-era hitmaker who resembles the Bowie of the "Let's Dance" era. In a world full of disillusioned former Ziggy disciples, writer/director Todd Haynes is apparently at the top of the list.
The film's commitment to accuracy is commendable, from spot-on art direction to a script that seems lifted in large part from Tony Zanetta's Bowie biography, Stardust. Despite the emphasis on historical correctness, the story isn't confined to linear literalism, veering instead into frequent fantasy sequences that convey the devil-may-care spirit of the glitter years (the first sequence shows a starship depositing the infant Oscar Wilde on an English doorstep). Considering how dim stateside memories of the period are, and how little of its whimsy survived the transition to the next generation's deathly serious pop, it's a wonder "Goldmine" has even been released on this side of the Atlantic.
Audiences who aren't already clued in will be further confused by the portrayal of Slade as a life-changing force. Rhys Meyers conveys none of the irresistible alien elan that made Bowie a talent to be reckoned with (then again, Bowie himself isn't doing too good a job on that front these days). His Slade comes off as a lost, charmless pretender to the throne. It's impossible to believe that he'd motivate even the most impressionable adolescent to refashion his own identity in emulation of such a lackluster idol.
The lack of a compelling stand-in for a true cultural genius is a backhanded testimony to the film's chief argument: that golden years like these really do come once in a lifetime.