One of the big smashes out of Cannes has been “Carol,” in which Cate Blanchett romances Rooney Mara. Its director, Todd Haynes, has long been a critics’ darling, but in 1998 he had a bit of a stumble, when he cashed in on the successes “Poison” and “Safe” to do up the lavish glam fantasia “Velvet Goldmine.” The film detailed the rise and fall of a David Bowie-esque star (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Bowie himself was displeased with the script’s claims — including relations with an American rock behemoth, played by Ewan McGregor, who’s a mix of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed — and forbade using his name and his music, though the title stuck with a pretty great Bowie b-side. (Haynes fared better with Bob Dylan, who allowed “I’m Not There” to happen.) Critics and audiences seemed nonplussed at its not-too-deep subversion of the rock movie template, or at least that it was, for more repressive 1998, super-duper-mega-ultra-gay.
That quality makes it feel more at-home in 2015, though it’s clear that “Velvet Goldmine” wants to push buttons — to unearth an era when being flamboyantly pansexual, in attitude and effect, briefly took over a chunk of the mainstream. The structure homages to “Citizen Kane,” with a former glam-hed-turned-journo (Christian Bale) investigating whatever happened to Meyers’ Brian Slade, turned reclusive after a faked assassination. (Unlike Bowie himself, Haynes’ film sees Bowie’s many incarnations — including ’80s “sell out” Bowie — as separate people entirely.)
But “Velvet Godmine” is not out to investigate a person — Slade remains an enigma, or at least a man trapped as a pop star cliche — as much as revive a scene and an era. This is an imagined phantasmagoria of glam, a thing of myth. The film thinks big enough to begin with a spaceship visiting the boy Oscar Wilde, who passes on his magical spirit through the ages. The bacchanalia that ensues follows the usual plummet into depravity and decay, but it also frontloads the music and performance more than most music films. And it gets what it feels like (presumably) to be in the middle of mythic excess and what it feels like (definitely) to be a fan. A scene of the young Bale caressing a new record sensually — carefully opening the bag it came in, gently pulling the vinyl from the sleeve — nails an excitement that, outside of record hounds, just isn’t felt with today’s insta-access music.