Velvet Goldmine: An Ode to Fandom
Written by Mara Facon
Velvet Goldmine (1998) is a film whose strength lies in the theatrical, visually stunning experiences that it conjures up for the viewer. Hiding the true personalities behind its characters in plain sight, it pays homage to the stars of the 1970s in a tangle of interwoven narratives of sexuality, identity, gender bending, love and loss. But although the flashiest and most outrageous scenes are reserved for David Bowie-stand in Brian Slade and Curt Wild, a combination of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, the breakout star of this piece is journalist and former Brian Slade fan Arthur Stuart.
Set in 1984, Arthur Stuart works a monotonous job as a journalist in a bleak, soulless version of New York. He is tasked with finding out “whatever happened to Brian Slade” and begins, in true Citizen Kane fashion, to interview those who were involved with
Slade in the 70s. Throughout the series of interviews, he reveals parts of his own past, where he, a young closeted man from a conservative family, finds strength in the music and persona of Brian Slade.
A scene in the first act of the film, gives us a short, heart-breaking glimpse into Arthur’s life. While Brian Slade is holding a press conference and, as is expected of him, shocking the reporters with his unapologetic answers, Arthur and his parents watch along on the television in their small, almost stifling living room. Arthur is glued to the screen and to Slade’s words, as the pop star leaves his interviewers speechless (even causing one of them to leave the room). There’s a question asked as to Slade’s bisexuality, and while he answers, Arthur imagines jumping up joyfully and telling his parents “That is me!”. Because despite what his parents might desire from him, “that” is him: a proud bisexual man. He wishes so badly to embrace his sexuality but is petrified when confronted with the idea of being shamed for it.
This emotional attachment to Slade, or his real life counterpart David Bowie, is something that many young outcasts can relate to. He represented a prideful indulgence in one’s identity, allowing oneself to be, without shame. When Arthur ends up leaving his conservative household, it is punctuated with the sentence “It’s funny how beautiful people look when they’re walking out the door.” His first awkward steps in platform boots are towards freedom. He eventually manages to live out his glam rock dreams outside his family home, finding a new family in the rock band “The Flaming Creatures”. He finds his tribe among like-minded people, forging connections with them that run deeper than blood. Being a fan of Slade’s has given this young man an outlet for his dreams and his identity to develop and blossom.
When Arthur meets and has a sexual encounter with Curt Wild, it is as if this world that Arthur has been dreaming about is suddenly opening up to him. He, the adoring fan meets the object of his affection and, perhaps to his surprise, his affection is returned by Wild. This shows that the relationship from fan to artist can also be reversed. It all comes full circle, as Arthur has a chance to make an impact on Wild’s life. Their encounter under a night sky full of shooting stars and flying saucers can be seen as the culmination of Arthur’s arc as a fan. It’s magical.
In an age of biopics that are produced with the full approval (and often the direct involvement) of the people they depict, Velvet Goldmine stands out as a project that attempted not only to capture the essence of David Bowie, but also the energy of his fans and the atmosphere of the 1970s. It’s not particularly concerned with historical detail, though it contains many hints and references to the stars and events of its time. Yet, the muddling of facts and the reinvention of its stars is what gives it such extraordinary power. The theme of identity, as a pop star, but also as a fan, is explored in a way that is hard to reproduce and goes beyond the life and legacy of David Bowie, or any of the influential people mentioned in this tale.
“The future belongs to those who can see it coming.”-David Bowie