Halfway through Todd Haynes’ glam-rock biopic Velvet Goldmine (1998), teenage Arthur (Christian Bale) sits with his parents in their suburban living room, watching a televised press interview with glam rock icon, Brian Slade (Jonathan Meyers). As Slade languidly expounds his views on marriage and sexual orientation – “Most people are bisexual…It doesn’t concern me in the least” – Arthur jumps up from his spot on the floor and excitedly declares to his parents and to the world generally: “That’s me!” Seeing Slade and his bisexuality emblazoned across his television screen, Arthur has recognized himself and, in that moment, his own fluid sexuality is acknowledged and validated. An instant later the scene is replayed, with Arthur remaining silent and we realize that his moment of identification has been an internal one. Nevertheless, although not articulated, Arthur has seen someone like himself onscreen and therefore is made aware that there are people who feel like him out in the world. He is not alone.
On-screen identification such as this is essential. It is hugely powerful to see oneself played back to oneself; it is an important validation of who you are and without this validation, there is a dismissal or negation of one’s true self.
Velvet Goldmine tells the story of journalist Arthur Stuart, assigned to track down and expose Slade who, following an elaborate publicity hoax ten years previously where he was supposedly assassinated onstage, may have resurfaced. Arthur is conflicted about the assignment, since his queer identity was formed by Slade’s stage persona and outspoken sexual views. Paying tribute to the narrative structure of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), the film follows Arthur’s interviews with those who were close to Slade – his wife, managers, and lover. As Slade’s life is constructed for the viewer through these interviews, it is Arthur’s life that comes into focus, as the film explores his awkward adolescence and emergence as a queer man in the giddy glam rock heights of the 1970s.
The glam rock moment, particularly in the UK, was one of excess and androgyny. Reviewing Velvet Goldmine in the New York Times, Janet Maslin described the period as “ a brave new world of electrifying theatricality and sexual possibility” and Haynes exploits this moment thoroughly. The film makes pointed use of the music of the time, incorporating tracks by Roxy Music, Cockney Rebel, Gary Glitter, and T Rex along with contemporary pieces (written to compensate for David Bowie’s refusal of the use of his own music). Glam rock performers and their fans wore elaborate makeup and flamboyant clothes, used glitter in fistfuls and sported shoes designed to make their wearer quite literally larger than life. Parents just like Arthur’s tut-tutted over these performers, asking, “Is that a boy or a girl?” – this confusion was exactly the point. The music and its performers are vital to Arthur’s validation of his sexual feelings and his moment of recognition when watching Slade announce his bisexuality is pivotal to his identity.
One central theme of Velvet Goldmine is the idea of hiding in plain sight, an allegory for most queer people in the pre-Aids years, afraid to come out but aching do so. Arthur’s reluctance to come out to his parents in the moment of recognizing a fundamental truth about his own sexuality means that he is hiding from them; and his intense shame when he is discovered masturbating to Slade’s provocative album cover is an expression of his hidden feelings.
Although open in his sexuality, Slade himself is actually in hiding. The film’s narrator neatly sums this up – “He [Slade] became someone else, but then again, he always was.” Arthur discovers this ambiguity while searching for his idol, discovering that Slade has not disappeared or been assassinated, but has reemerged as American-accented, Reagan-era Republican, Tommy Stone, rendered bland and safe for a newly emerged MTV audience. Stone is as far removed from Brian Slade as is possible and the twist in the tale is that Slade/Stone has been hiding among us all the time. Despite Arthur’s multiple interviews with Slade’s friends, the film never really gets to the heart of who Slade really is; his true self remains hidden at all times. Slade’s Ziggy Stardust-like alter ego is Maxwell Demon, a slinky, posturing, be-glittered performer, who (like Ziggy) simulates oral sex onstage with his lead guitarist. Slade hides behind this oversized persona – earlier accounts of Slade in the British folk scene show him to be quiet and soft spoken. When questioned about his erstwhile client, Slade’s first manager, Cecil reveals that Brian Slade is himself an invention and that Slade’s actual name was Thomas. This is the clue that Arthur needs to link Slade with Tommy Stone, confirming that young Thomas, rock icon Slade, alter ego Maxwell Demon, and alt-right conformist Tommy Stone are all the same person, each iteration of the man hiding behind the next, none expressing himself openly.
A nod is given to this legacy of hiding when young Thomas watches a traditionally cross-dressed pantomime dame (played by Lindsay Kemp, openly queer actor/mime/choreographer) both on stage and performing oral sex on a male patron in his dressing room. Not only is the performer quite literally hidden behind a thick layer of makeup, but the camera zooms in on a close up of Thomas’ eye as he watches, reinforcing the secrecy of him gazing on a ‘hidden’ act.
In learning about Slade, his bisexuality, and by watching his joyfully flamboyant, sexually fluid persona, Arthur comes to understand his own queerness. He is not the only man who has ever had to hide his sexuality.
If the film provides Arthur with a sense of a community where he may not have to hide, it also presents him with a history of that community, a legacy of queerness, seen in the film to have originated with Oscar Wilde, who Haynes fancifully baptises a godfather of glam rock. Velvet Goldmine has Wilde arrive on earth as a fully formed “other”, landing on an Irish doorstep after being left there by aliens, with a beautiful green brooch pinned to his blanket. This brooch is significant in that it is passed on through generations from one queer figure to another, eventually falling into Arthur’s hands. It is a symbol of the responsibility the queer community has to remember – rather than disavow – its history.
Not only is Slade someone to whom Arthur can relate, but the film also depicts other members of this community, both past and present. Slade’s first manager Cecil watches Slade’s act in a smoky club, in the company of another two men, all chatting together in polari, a coded language used by queer men to communicate and recognize each other safely and secretively at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal act. This is their moment of hiding in plain sight, as it was for many British gay men until the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967, which led to the decriminalization of homosexuality in the United Kingdom. Here, the men use polari to remain open enough to aid in community building but clandestine enough to avoid criminal charges and social shaming.
The heart of Velvet Goldmine is its music and its wholehearted embrace of the music of the glam rock moment is a way to continue this history lesson. By combining contemporary music of the 1970s along with music written twenty years later specifically for the soundtrack and performed by artists from the 1990s, there is a continuity of the music’s relevance beyond the immediate glam rock period. This in turn continues the theme of the history of queerness and gender non-conformity, from Wilde onwards. In the depiction of Arthur, a man looking – and finding – his place in the world, Velvet Goldmine provides representation for a new generation of queer-identifying moviegoers. Critically slated at the time of its release, the film has subsequently been embraced by viewers who see themselves on-screen and who recognize and can feel a part of a long- standing community. Just like Arthur, they can say, with excitement, “That’s me!”
This is the power of on-screen representation.
Written for The Film Dispatch by Lesley Finn.