Velvet Goldmine – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 76: Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Velvet 001

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We tackled Ride With the Devil, Ang Lee’s empathetic take on the American Civil War.

The Choice

This time it was on me, and I narrowed it down to the bare essentials before making my final choice.

Pleasantville (1998) via Tobey Maguire because… I’ve been meaning to watch it for years.

The Newton Boys (1998) via Skeet Ulrich because… I really should see a third Skeet Ulrich film.

Outlander (2008) via Jim Caviezel because… it’s got aliens and vikings in, I’m only human!

The Village (2004) via Celia Weston because… an M Night Shyamalan film might at least be fun to dislike.

Safe Men (1998) via Mark Ruffalo because… it’s got Sam Rockwell in it and I will watch him in anything.

And the winner… Velvet Goldmine (1998) via:

The Link

Jonathan Rhys Meyers

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Turns out I’ve been lucky enough not to see him in that much. Ah, I miss those innocent days. I mean, he’s clearly very pretty, he looks like a Frank Quitely comic book character, all bee stung lips and such… but… well, I’ll talk about it below.

Velvet Goldmine and me

Sometimes we come across classics in CRFC and it’s a little embarrassing to admit I haven’t seen them (I didn’t start blogging this until after we watched The Godfather, thank christ). Other times there are films which, if they’re not stone cold classics, they are at least so incredibly pertinent to my interests that my not-having seen them beggars belief.

I got into glam rock when I was in my early teens, mainly through T Rex and Sweet. Then in my late teens and early 20s I was in a goth band with definite glam leanings. We preened, we were thin white dukes all (ok, thin white oiks), and I had the best silver mock snakeskin coat the world has ever seen.

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I miss this coat

And as all this was happening, Velvet Goldmine came out. My best friend and bandmate saw it at the time and told me I had to see it.

And for some reason I didn’t.

IMDB says

In 1984, British journalist Arthur Stuart investigates the career of 1970s glam superstar Brian Slade, who was heavily influenced in his early years by hard-living and rebellious American singer Curt Wild.

I says

Hum.

And that’s the hum of someone unsure of what they thought rather than someone humming along with a tune.

It’s definitely not what I expected, which can be both blessing and curse. And realising that it was directed by Todd Haynes, he of the Dylan biopic in which 7 diverse people play Dylan at different times of his life should have been a clue (really must see He’s Not There at some point).

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Not Bowie

Jonathan Rhys Meyers is Bowie-alike Brian Slade (though different enough following lawsuit threats apparently); Christian Bale is a journo who had a formative experience at a Slade (oh, I see what they’ve done there) gig 10 years ago and is now doing a where-are-they-now piece about the vanished star; Ewan McGregor is Iggy Pop-alike Curt Wild. That one. I’ll watch the Iggy one please.

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Not Iggy

And I think that was my main feeling – I couldn’t give a monkeys about Meyers or Bale in this, Ewan McGregor’s Curt Wild was so much more fun and charismatic (and likeable) that the others sort of paled (even more than the make-up). He was a lot Iggy, a bit Jim Morrisson and, according to Courney Love, a bit Kurt Cobain. It’s a strong mix. Rhys Meyers on the other hand, fresh from last weeks appearance as some sort of bizarre vampire in 1800s America, seems to be playing a bizarre vampire in 1970s London. Is he a bizarre vampire in everything? I’ve not seen The Tudors but can picture bizarre vampire Henry VIII all too clearly…

It did make me think a bit though. Not about what it wanted me to think about, mind, whatever that was. No, it struck me that it was made in the late 90s when there was a sudden surge (or it seemed like it at the time) of experimenting with sexual orientation. Out the back of the Yeoman on a Friday night you’d have to be blind to miss boys snogging boys and girls snogging girls, and this in Tunbridge Wells. People were professing their bisexuality all over the shop. I had some confusing feelings about Jamie Theakston for god’s sake. And Velvet Goldmine reflects that atmosphere back and says yeah, it was right there in the 70s too (though there did seem to be a conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia in places which was somewhat… troubling).

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I mean… Hunky, yeah?

And now that we’re living in a time when sexual orientation and gender identity are big mainstream topics my main thought is that I hope it sticks this time. It’s been bubbling away in subcultures for so long that I really do hope we’re at the point where it isn’t all forced back underground and cloaked behind euphemism. It’s there behind the hippies, glam, punk, new romantic and on and on and on. It’s always been there, now perhaps we can discuss it sensibly and publicly accept that it has indeed always been there. Always will be there no matter what happens in the grand scheme of things. It feels like we’re really close this time, laws have been made after all and mainstream gay and trans icons abound, but events across the pond are showing how quickly things can be undone…

Getting back to the film for a sec, most damningly I didn’t come away from it humming any tunes. And that’s unforgiveable. There’s a decent version of Gimme Danger courtesy of Ewan’s Curt Wild. And Placebo turn up to give 20th Century Boy a decent outing (but come on, unless you piss about with it 20th Century Boy is always going to be 100% banger). For all Cadillac Records‘ flaws I was singing Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf songs for days afterwards. I still find Sing Street’s Riddle of the Model popping into my head (seriously, go and watch Sing Street if you haven’t already. And watch it again if you have). The Blues Brothers is held together by the strength of the songs… and that’s where Velvet Goldmine falls flat.

Come to think of it, The Blues Brothers might be a good comparison. Both have a sort of hyper reality that keeps becoming quasi music video. Both deal with forgotten musical heroes in a way… Wikipedia tells me that Velvet Goldmine closely parallels Citizen Kane, but I’m saying The Blues Brothers is the one to compare it to. And I know which of those gets me singing…

The Verdict

If you’re after Citizen Kane allusions I’d recommend the episodes of The Real Ghostbusters and Pinky and the Brain instead.

Coming Attractions

It’s Tim’s choice. I hope it doesn’t involve a bizarre vampire.

@BornToPootle

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Ride With The Devil – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 75: Ride With The Devil (1999)

Ride 02

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

Cadillac Records was last up, and I theorised that the two ways to tell whether a music biopic was worth it’s salt were a) would you rather have watched it than spent the duration listening to the music itself, or b) has it put the music in a new context that affects your enjoyment one way or the other. Cadillac Records fell at both hurdles, unfortunately.

The Choice

There was no shortlist this week – after looking through some filmographies Tim knew he wanted to go to Ride With The Devil next.

The Link

Jeffrey Wright

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Wright as Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records

He turned in a muscular performance as Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records last time. I’ve seen him in a few bits and bobs over the years, but always in quite minor roles, so I’m pleased we’re getting a second helping. Tim’s a fan of his, and on the strength of last week’s film alone I can see myself becoming a fan too. It doesn’t exactly hurt that his Twitter account is a very sassy resistance feed:

Ride 01

Ride With The Devil and me

I wanted to see this when it came out. I wanted to see this at various points when it was on TV in the early noughties (goddamn I hate that that caught on as the nickname for the decade). I’ve had a copy on a hard drive recorded from TV for about 10 years. And yet…  for some reason I never have managed to find the time. Apart from being directed by Ang Lee, concerning the American civil war and being one of only two films I’m aware of Skeet Ulrich being in (Scream is of course the other) I know very little about it.

IMDB says

During the American Civil War, two friends join the Bushwhackers, a militant group loyal to the Confederacy.

I says

Well here we go. The American Civil War has come back into general discussion recently (possibly in the US it’s never out of general discussion) thanks to the debates about the confederate flag and statues of confederate generals and such. As a rank outsider, the general view I’ve always assumed is that Confederates = want slavery, Unionists = want abolition. Or to put it another way, Confederates are the bad guys. Now I know it’s not as simple as that and am certainly not going to spend this blog writing a secondary school essay on the causes of the American Civil War, but I hadn’t previously realise that this film centred on Confederate troops. I say troops, but they’re more like a guerilla cell within Union territory.

Ride 04Skeet and the Tobester (as I imagine their local radio morning show would be titled)

Toby Maguire and Skeet Ulrich are the friends who join the Bushwhackers following Ulrich’s father being murdered by Union soldiers and his house being burned to the ground. They get up to such shenanigans as dressing up as Union troops to inveigle their way into a group and then open fire on soldiers and civilian supporters alike. We see that bad stuff has been done to them, and they go right on and do bad stuff back. Things get a bit more interesting when they shack up in the woods for the winter with Simon Baker’s George Clyde and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), a slave whom Clyde freed – not by buying his contract but by gifting the money to buy the contract to the slave himself.

As they remain cooped up, things seem to become more savage among the Bushwhackers. People are collecting scalps. The Union army is closing in. And in the meantime singer/songwriter Jewel is coming and going with food parcels and kisses for Skeet Ulrich. Incidentally, I’ve looked it up and I don’t think Skeet is short for anything. Imagine that.

There’s a feeling that the boys are tired of the fighting, but more than that it becomes increasingly apparent, though not trumpeted loudly still, what is being fought for. And it becomes increasingly uncomfortable for Daniel Holt, who is well and truly bonded with Clyde and the others. Black bodies are being burnt in the street and drunken Bushwhackers make a grab for him, forgetting he’s on their side. It does a good job of balancing sympathy for the characters without expecting us to sympathise with the cause. I’ve never been a huge Tobey Maguire fan though, which didn’t shift with this film. I saw Molly’s Game at the cinema a couple of days later, which would have blown any remaining fondness for Tobey away anyway (I know, the character in Molly’s Game is fictionalised, but by how much?). A film focusing more solely on Jeffrey Wright’s character might have been more my cup of tea.

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That’s right, I’m about to shoehorn in a Firefly reference. Because any excuse.

I got quite interested in the Civil War last year, as I finally read Killer Angels, one of the books Joss Whedon cites as a big influence on Firefly (yes, that’s the only reason I read it, wanna make something of it?). That’s a dramatic retelling of the immediate build up to Gettysburg from the points of view of various Union and Confederate soldiers and has a similarly good balance between character and cause. Because it had such a tight focus on one specific battle, I ended up watching a documentary series on Netflix to give a bit of context. If you haven’t already seen Ken Burns’ Civil War then I would strongly recommend giving it a go. Suffice to say, war is hell.

Two final points on the film. Firstly, Ang Lee knows his way around a frame. There are some really beautiful shots. Secondly, my least favourite element was Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ character who seems to be a malevolent dick throughout purely for the sake of it. Towards the end he seems to be morphing into the vampire Lestat, which unfortunately reminded me of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. And there’s no need for that.

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I’ll give you the choice I never had… 

The Verdict

Mainly interesting and compassionate, occasionally exciting and nasty, sometimes cheesey and forced. And then a vampire turns up.

Coming Attractions

Will I discover a third Skeet Ulrich film? Will I make Tim watch the dance sequence from Spider-man 3 (spoiler: no. No I will not. Because I would also have to watch it again)? Has Jewel been in any other films? We’ll find out next time…

@BornToPootle