On Screen Projection: Velvet Goldmine
With the painfully slow rollout of Vox Lux, it got me to thinking about fame. This is a fairly obvious theme given that Natalie Portman is playing an aging pop star. There are many choices when it comes to music and fame in film. But given the shimmering visuals present in the trailer, the movie that immediately came to mind was Velvet Goldmine. Given that it is loosely based on David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Brian Eno, you would be hard pressed to find a slicker representation of glamour and fame in the music industry. In many ways, our entire culture is uncomfortably focused on fame, but do we understand what fame does to a person? Let’s delve just a bit deeper.
There are many threads present in Velvet Goldmine, but arguably the most important is that of the romantic relationships. At different points in the film, our Bowie stand-in, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), is involved sexually with Mandy (Toni Collette) and Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). Neither of these relationships is particularly stable due to a few reasons, including fame, jealousy, and creative conflict. Todd Haynes, who both directed and wrote the film, makes an incredibly astute decision to frame the epic story through an outsider’s perspective. Journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is forced to remember his own past through the rise of Brian Slade. As such, in a fabulous opening scene in which Slade fakes his own death, our star is at the height of his fame. This immediately puts the audience at a distance, but thankfully, the film does the work of diving into his life as it moves through time breathlessly. Although Velvet Goldmine gets a lot of attention for its stunning visuals (and for good reason), it is more than that.
There is an almost forced narcissism that comes with fame. Grandiose narcissism is defined as the quality in which a person sees themselves as superior to everyone else in their surrounding life. Brian Slade is consistently treated this way at the beginning of his career, particularly by Mandy, Cecil (Michael Feast), and Jerry Devine (Eddie Izzard). Additionally, Slade has a high opinion of himself, so this treatment is not helping anyone. These qualities, it should not surprise you, are not great for romantic relationships. Slade is actually a perfect example for this narcissism because those with this trait also tend to be very charming and alluring. In a study from 2017, researchers compared the downward trajectory of these relationships to a chocolate cake. At first, you absolutely enjoy being around this person, but as time passes, regret begins to build. In this study, they examined how attracted people would be to narcissistic people in short-term situations. Essentially, they found that it is easy to be swept up in the admiration of a charming partner, but that it eventually leads to a rivalry for attention which rarely ends well.
Nearly everyone who comes into contact with Slade ends up playing the role of a fan. This is true of his wife, his agents, journalists, you name it. All except one. Curt Wild, who is an obvious corollary for Iggy Pop (who had an extremely close relationship with Bowie), does not stand on ceremony with Slade. As a matter of fact, because of Wild’s energetic performances, Slade is put in the odd position of chasing someone else. As with many people with narcissistic qualities, it begins as a rivalry. Slade is intensely jealous of the power that Wild has onstage. He also seems more comfortable in his own skin. Unlike Slade, this is never an act. He is only himself at all times, even when he is on stage.
Brian uses his connections to bring Curt along into the fold to cut a record and the two are quickly inseparable. Another decision made by Todd Haynes is to detail their romantic trysts through music video stylings, interviews, and even children playing with dolls. This is a hint that any real lasting romance between the two is a dream, something fleeting that will never last. It is no mistake that besides the intimate kiss just beforehand, the most overtly sexual moment between the two takes place on stage, with Slade simulating fellatio on Wild while he plays the guitar. But like most relationships between the intensely famous, this would never last. Clearly, this is not as simple as Brian Slade is terrible and Curt is the abused partner. Curt has his share of problems including drug abuse and anger. But when things start to go south, Slade outwardly shows no interest in reconnecting, but instead chases him away with his own brand of narcissistic anger. Internally, they both suffer, but actively push one another away. The two drown themselves in their respective vices and drift further away from any real depth in their own lives. Their relationship may have been doomed from the start, but it still stings with pang of loss on each and every viewing.
Velvet Goldmine is, by some, given short shrift as purely style over substance. And that is an easy leap to make as it is overcome with style. But there is a hidden depth and a sorrow from the loss of opportunity, friendship, and love. I only hope that Natalie Portman and Vox Lux manage to capture a sliver of this depth. And given Portman’s impressive filmography, there is a good chance that she can match this, even if the film itself is not up to snuff.