Pop quiz or makeup test, 'Velvet Goldmine' gets an A



Today marks the Baltimore release of two films by Todd Solondz and Todd Haynes, promising directors who possess distinctive cinematic visions.

Haynes, whose "Velvet Goldmine," an ode to 1970's glam rock, opens at the Rotunda -- is best known for the 1995's "Safe," in which Julianne Moore played a homemaker anxious about her environment.

Solondz, -- whose "Happiness," a jaundiced portrait of family life, opens at the Charles -- gained wide renown with 1995's art-house hit "Welcome to the Dollhouse," a ruthlessly unsentimental portrait of 11-year-old nerd queen Dawn Wiener. At a time when even Hollywood's most independent offshoots seem dedicated to formula films and market-driven drivel, the Todds present encouraging evidence that film can still be a medium of experimentation and powerful imaginaytion.

In a kaleidoscopic burst of color, sound and sex appeal, writer-director Todd Haynes pays homage to glam rock in "Velvet Goldmine," a film that is as much about the power of self-invention as it is a trippy stroll down memory lane to the glitter-strewn 1970s.

A kinetic "Citizen Kane"-like investigation into the life of a legendary rock star, "Velvet Goldmine" sets the pictorial majesty of Welles' classic on its dignified ear, with Haynes throwing every stylistic and narrative flourish possible into the mix. The result is a sometimes confounding but always engaging journey through 1970s London to the fat, gray '80s, when all those flamboyant outcasts from the peace and love generation settled down to make a living.

The Kane of "Velvet Goldmine" is Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), whose life describes the now-familiar arc of obscurity discovery fame self-destruction obscurity. The son of a Birmingham tile-monger, Brian is strumming away in small clubs and festivals when he catches a performance of Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), a Detroit rocker whose stage presence combines the raw sexual energy of Jim Morrison and the subversive physical feats of Iggy Pop. Casting his lot with Wild, Brian goes on to become the most successful glam-rock star of his era, a mascaraed rouge-lipped trope for all the absurd, sexy, musically diverse impulses of the early 1970s.

Journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is assigned to ferret out Slade's whereabouts on the 10th anniversary of the star's mysterious disappearance.

And as it turns out, Arthur himself was a follower as a young lad in London. When "Velvet Goldmine" presents scenes of Arthur's own musical and sexual awakening -- thumbing through albums in a record shop (ah, the lost tactile pleasures of vinyl!) or sitting in his room obsessing over Brian and Curt -- the movie shifts from being the chronicle of a cultural anomaly to something much more deeply felt.

Haynes actually starts "Velvet Goldmine" a century before Brian's own birth, when a young Oscar Wilde first announces his intention of becoming a pop icon. More than a bad-boy Bildungsroman, "Velvet Goldmine" is a wildly telescoped look at performance through the ages, as well as the enduring lure of charisma, style and illicit sexuality. It also insistently adheres to the cardinal principle of Wilde and his heirs, that life should be a figment of one's own imagination.

Although Brian's resemblance to David Bowie and Curt's genesis in Iggy Pop are unmistakable, Rhys Meyer and McGregor's characterizations go far beyond those real-life apostles of androgyny. Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry, Lou Reed, Sid Vicious and the Beatles are represented here, if obliquely. Even Kurt Cobain hovers like a ghostly presence through McGregor's uncanny resemblance to the late alternative musician. It's as if Haynes swirled the entire Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll History into one hugely imaginative blender.

But more than a romp through music history or a cautionary tale about fame and its costs, "Velvet Goldmine" is just plain fun, skittering between arch music videos, fantasy sequences, Richard Lester-like flashbacks and crazily authentic set pieces.

The movie is graced with superb performances by every player; Rhys Meyers and McGregor are nothing short of astonishing in their ability to make the Bowie-Pop characters recognizably authentic, even as they take them into territory all their own. (They also sing all of their own material on the film's pitch-perfect soundtrack.)

Eddie Izzard is one part P.T. Barnum, one part Brian Epstein as Brian's paunchy manager. But the true revelation here is Toni Colette, who plays Brian's wife, Mandy, an American groupie who affects a British accent along with every other sartorial trend of whatever moment she's in. Thanks to a grounded, sympathetic performance, Mandy emerges as far deeper than just a hanger-on, especially in her present-day interviews with Arthur.

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