Almost 25 years after he made his first film, Todd Haynes remains as provocative and singular a filmmaker as ever. From the incendiary “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” to Oscar-nominated projects like “Far From Heaven” and most-recently, his HBO-backed adaptation with “Mildred Pierce,” Haynes repeatedly, and directly engages controversial subject matter, examining it in oddly universal ways without sacrificing an honest or incisive eye. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been until recently that the home video market has really given many of his works the attention they deserve. On the eve of Lionsgate’s Blu-ray release of his 1998 glam rock chronicle, “Velvet Goldmine,” Haynes told The Playlist he’s happy to have a chance to add some supplemental materials for the first time which give its fans additional insights into his creative process.
“In the original release of ‘Velvet Goldmine,’ the Miramax release, they kind of rushed it out without any extras whatsoever on the film,” Haynes said earlier this week via telephone. “There was such a wealth of stuff to talk about on that movie and I was also so inside it at that time that I was disappointed that I didn’t get to talk about the film then. And I felt, okay, now’s the time to do a commentary track.”
Based on the evolution of David Bowie and other key figures of the rock & roll scene during the 1960s and ‘70s, “Velvet Goldmine” demanded intense, in-depth research for its detailed combination and fact and myth. 13 years after it was first released, however, Haynes revealed he relied ore on the film’s fans than on his own notes. “I basically spent my time preparing and getting my head back into all of the source material that had produced the story,” he explained. “Everything in ‘Velvet Goldmine’ comes from something historic, or from the writings and imaginations of these seminal figures, musical artists and poetic antecedents. And I literally went back to the fan sites of ‘Velvet Goldmine,’ which had been so devoted to chronicling the back story and annotating the film, just to jigger my memory, because it’s been so long.”
“I was incredibly grateful for what a good job they’d done,” he continued. “Because there was like no single file I could turn to in my own stuff to get it all.” Meanwhile, Haynes indicated he didn’t participate in creating a high-definition transfer for the disc, but said he’s satisfied with the quality of the presentation. “I think they did a really, really beautiful job; I think the grain element is present, I think it feels like a film. I think the sound reproduction is quite good, but I wasn’t totally involved in those stages.”
In spite of his efforts to depict the era both as accurately and as theatrically as possible – again, combining historical information with some embellishment for entertainment purposes – Haynes said that in the years since its release, he was surprised to discover how accurate was his combination of 70’s rock icons and classical English “dandies,” whom he linked initially to give the film a sense of poetry. “I found out that the intellectual precursors to this like Oscar Wilde and Beau Brummel and the kind of the history of the dandy in English culture were things that these artists were literally thinking about,” he said. “I mean, I was making allusions myself and felt like that line could be drawn and it was rich and deep and sort of story and its sort of an inevitability in a way. But I found out that Bowie was quite conscious of these things, and he really had a self-consciousness that was cunning and fascinating.”
Meanwhile, Haynes also said that the film’s fans highlighted conceptual, or even potentially historical connections that he hadn’t thought of. “As I read what the fans and all of the chroniclers of ‘Velvet Goldmine’ wrote over the years, they would extrapolate on like, who was Jack Fairy? Was he Jack Smith? Was he Marc Bolan? Who was this predecessor to Bowie? And in some of those examples, there were names and ideas that I hadn’t thought of, and I was like, that makes sense, that’s wise. It was cool. It became a kind of communal fascination and compulsion that I was able to give back to fan or introduce fans to as I was myself a fan of this music so it became a kind of ongoing dialogue among fans.”
“And ultimately that’s what the movie’s about,” Haynes observed. “It’s about the Arthur Stewart character, the Christian Bale character who is basically interpreting and traversing through this history.”
Even having chronicled the era in meticulous detail, however, Haynes still marvels at the events that inspired the film, and how it became a watershed moment in the music business’ transition into a major industry. “It only could have happened at this time at this sort of interesting transition in the growth of the rock industry from kind of a cottage industry in the 60s to the mega-corporate industry it would become by the mid-70s,” he acknowledged. “It was a period that was quite exploitable in terms of image production, that it took an incredibly savvy but experimental sensibility to manipulate and make use of.”
Haynes seems to love the fact that the film offers audiences both a faithful retelling of the events of the time, and a sort of cinematic treatise on “performance” as both a lifestyle and a marketing tool. “The events in ‘Velvet Goldmine,’ which are fictionalized, just draw directly back to these events, so they’re almost all rooted in something real,” he continued. “But yeah, it was just the whole desire to transform oneself and to adopt different kinds of personae and this sort of sexual ambiguity. And they were a bunch of novices, a bunch of actors, and it worked, but that whole mentality, that whole sort of idea permeates almost every step of the story, not just in Bowie but in this interestingly transitional period in this chapter of rock.”
“I loved that, and I just saw that as an invitation to play that up,” he said. “The whole thing was just such an extraordinary act of theater.”
The “Velvet Goldmine” Blu-ray re-release is out now.