Let me start off by saying that this post (and Cat’s post, coming Thursday) are going to be about Velvet Goldmine, one of my favourite films. I cannot guarantee they will be spoiler-free, which seems reasonable given the film came out in 1998 and it’s on Netflix. Additionally, you ought to know that my focus is going to be my own experience of and connection to the film. There have been plenty of analyses written; I seem to trip over a new one every once in a while still. If you want a good place to hunker down and read a lot, the general consensus is that Varda the Message is the place to go. Expectations set? Allons-y!
Now, in spite of what I said in the previous post, I suspect that the real reason we’re starting this blog with a glam month is that, as we walked to the EMP/SFM for our planning meeting for the blog, Cat and I talked about this film. She’d just seen it for the first time, and it had spoken to her. (Also, the shooting of Brian Slade happened on 5 February, so there’s another February reason for glam.)
My own first viewing was pretty much as good as I could have asked for. An older friend (I say “older” not to point out that she was born before me but that I’ve generally seen her as wiser and more experienced)…An older friend who’d seen it previously knew enough about me to be sure I’d love it, so she invited me to come see it when a little independent cinema near us screened it. Middle of the day on a weekday, I walked out of the sunshine into the quiet and nearly-empty dark of the cinema. I watched it splashed across a big screen, overcome, no distractions, before emerging into the harsh glare of sunlight that scattered on the glitter I was wearing. Some films are best viewed on a large screen, with a booming sound system. This beautiful and musically-great film was one of those.
Undoubtedly, my friend knew I’d love this film because she saw the glam in me, she suspected the soundtrack would synch well with my other tastes of which she knew, and she knew I had a rather massive interest in David Bowie. To be clear, and you know this if you’ve read anything about the film, Bowie declined involvement in the film because it was unabashedly meant to kind of be about him and he didn’t like what he felt it would say about him. He’s never been shy about confirming the he didn’t care for the film. But those of us who’ve read about Bowie’s history can see where they blatantly ripped off and hyperbolised his life. No, this isn’t reality, but it’s very much like when they say a film or a programme is based on real events; we all know (I hope we all know) that there may be no more than a few little grains of truth. Fortunately, this isn’t based on my life story, so I’m free to enjoy it and simply smile or laugh at every one of the Bowie-inspired bits. (Bowie’s not the only person you’ll recognise in there, but you’ve watched it and already know. They aren’t even attempting subtlety. Ditching subtlety is generally the right call in glam.)
For me, another great musical connection—aside from all the actual music—was that Placebo were in the film. Yes, there are plenty of actors that also made it appealing, but Placebo were and are, as noted in my last post, part of the recent glam scene (at least in my mind). Placebo and Bowie are 2/3 of my musical Trinity, so that was a lovely and appropriate little treat in the film for me. Given I’d hung a picture of Placebo’s lead singer on my wall, one torn from a magazine that came out during the Velvet Goldmine era, before I’d seen Velvet Goldmine, this might have been one more clue to my friend that I needed to see this film. Yes, needed.
Because this film, for me, was a loving music video made in tribute to the dream of glam, whilst acknowledging the reality of it. It showed the ideal, the fantasy we were reaching for…It showed the ways most of us fell short even at our best. I know I’m supposed to suggest some little-known album, but I’m not that guy. Instead, I’m the one who says that this is a good place to start if you think you’d like to get a feel for glam. You probably don’t even need to research the film, to learn all about which lines are actually Oscar Wilde quotes or the person on whom a particular character is based, in order to get the feel. (And then you can do research and check out our handful of entries this month on the blog if this cinematic love song speaks to you.)
For me, the effect was like finding a letter written by a past self, full of hopes and plans and good intentions, calling me back to the things I’d set aside that had made my life richer. It said, “Here’s where you landed instead. Is that okay with you? You can probably make changes, reclaim your trajectory…if you want.” And, oh my stars, I wanted. As a self-examining type, I welcomed the chance to take stock of my past and my present, of what things my past had been influencing all my life—much of which I’d ceased to notice—and what things it needed to influence again. Did I want to grow up to be Tommy Stone or, with cautions from the film about how to cock it all up, become the best of the dream Brian Slade was pretending to pursue? And, when I went online to see who else was talking about this, I found I wasn’t the only one. I might be solo by nature and an inordinately big fan of myself, but I can’t deny that sometimes it’s easier to hold onto my true self when I’ve got friends who also appreciate the brilliance of my true self .
“We set out to change the world and ended up just changing ourselves.” I’ve been re-watching (again) as I write this post, and this line towards the very end has always just felt bleak. But tonight, I hear it as more of a challenge. Yes, of course, I want to change myself. But not the way they did in the film. I want to use it as a cautionary tale, not just a reminder of the dream. I want to change to be my best self and always feel unashamed of and glorious about that. And I also want to change the world, even if, like the characters, my personal changes fail to spread to the world at large. I want to make sure my words and music and very presence bring love and light, colour and hope (even if I favour a mostly-black wardrobe) into the grey and fractured world we humans have built. If I change only myself for the better or my light touches only a small corner, it’s still better than not changing, or trying to change, at all.
Even if you don’t enjoy glam music or aesthetics, even if you are appalled by the sexuality and excess that can be part of glam and certainly this film, you can still take up that challenge. When did you stop believing in something more than this grey world? When did you give up on joyful things and why? Because if we change ourselves, each of us individually, in bright ways, we can change the world.