Everyone’s Obsessed with Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine
by Danielle Ryan
In Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998), love, passion, and obsession are interchangeable.
Velvet Goldmine follows Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a British reporter living in America in the mid- 1980s, as he works on an investigative piece that serves as the film’s framing device, a’ la Citizen Kane. He’s assigned to write about glam rocker Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) faking his death ten years prior. Arthur interviews people from Slade’s past, including his ex-wife Mandy (Toni Colette), former managers (Michael Feast and Eddie Izzard), and even his former flame, American punk rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). Each regales Arthur with their glitter-tinted memories of Slade’s rise and eventual, intentional fall.
Haynes originally intended for Velvet Goldmine to be a David Bowie biopic, but Bowie refused to have any involvement or allow his music to be used. Haynes used his own obsession for glam rock to create an alternate history of the origins of the genre by way of Oscar Wilde and creating characters clearly based on Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and more. Haynes’ passion for the subject matter gives the film both vibrancy and authenticity. (The killer soundtrack doesn’t hurt, either.)
In Haynes’ alternate reality, Oscar Wilde (the playwright and author of The Picture of Dorian Gray) was an extraterrestrial left on the doorsteps of an Irish couple’s home. He was the first rock star, Haynes posits, and in addition to leaving his work behind, he also left a mysterious green brooch. The brooch passes from character to character throughout the film and serves as a visual representation of their obsessions coming to fruition.
Arthur, Wild, and Slade serve as Haynes’ triptych of shifting sexuality and dangerous obsessions within the “perfect and poisonous” world of 1970s glam rock.
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Obsession is at the root of fandom, and Arthur’s fandom for Slade runs deep. He identifies not only with Slade’s music, but his views on sexuality. As Arthur questions his own identity and sexual fluidity, he sees Slade giving an interview on T.V. In the interview, Slade says that he likes both girls and boys, and asks the BBC reporter what the difference really is in liking either. Arthur points at the television and tells his parents exuberantly, “That’s me! That’s me!” He finally has a way to explain his feelings, using Slade’s open queerness as his template. He starts going to glam rock shows and wearing makeup, much to his parents’ dismay.
These bits are revealed throughout the film, as Arthur interviews his subjects and remembers his own perspective on the events. His primary obsession throughout Velvet Goldmine is Brian Slade because Slade provided Arthur with the key to unlocking his own sexual identity. To Arthur, Slade represents sexuality and personal expression through music. Slade says it best himself: “Rock n’ roll is a prostitute; it should be tarted up, performed. The music is the mask.”
Oscar Wilde believed a man needed a mask in order to tell the truth. Slade’s performance of polyamorous bisexuality reflected his identity. Likewise, Arthur used Slade’s music and the glam rock aesthetic to create his own mask, which in turn reflected his true self. Arthur’s lifelong connection to Slade’s music and views on sexuality provide emotional resonance for the frame narrative. It also provides Arthur with a connection to another person obsessed with Brian Slade – Curt Wild.
“The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history.”
Curt Wild, based on two of Bowie’s alleged real-life paramours - Lou Reed and Iggy Pop – is possessed by his obsessions because they help him forget his painful past. Unlike Arthur, Wild is aware of his sexuality and has already suffered for being open about it; after being discovered giving oral sex to a male relative, Wild was sent away for electroshock therapy. (According to rock legend, Lou Reed endured something similar.) Wild’s obsessions are escapes. Early in the film, he is addicted to heroin and that serves as his only preoccupation. However, once he is clean and becomes the object of Brian Slade’s attentions, he shifts his focus to Slade.
“Heroin used to be my main man. You could be my main man,” he tells Slade at a meeting arranged by Slade’s manager.
While Slade is infatuated with Wild, the latter is more jaded. He sees Slade first to get out of his post-rehab slump, but then becomes enamored with him. Wild falls for Slade, and he falls hard. The two have a whirlwind romance that’s highly publicized and a bit antagonistic against the media. Wild sees pop culture’s obsession with his sexuality and their relationship as the latest trendy thing and doesn’t appreciate his identity being turned into a fashion statement.
“Everyone’s into this scene because it’s supposedly the thing to do right now. But you just can’t fake being gay”, he tells a reporter when asked about homosexuality as a rising trend due to glam rock.
Wild begins to feel alienated from the scene and from Slade, who grows increasingly preoccupied with fame and his artistic vision. He ends up finding comfort in the arms of Arthur, who comes to see him perform one night after Slade fakes his death. Their communion is both sexual and spiritual as they try to rebuild their fractured identities.
Though their relationships with him are vastly different, both Wild and Arthur bear the emotional scars of their unhealthy obsessions with Slade. Estranged from their families and former lives, they find solace in each other. When Arthur bumps into Wild a decade later, Wild gives Arthur the brooch that once belonged to Oscar Wilde. Slade gave it to him as a gift during the height of their romance, and Wild wants Arthur to have it. Arthur receives the brooch just after solving the mystery of Slade’s whereabouts and faked death – the culmination of his obsession as a reporter and a fan. Wild’s obsession was more romantic and sexual, and thus Slade gave it to him during a beach getaway.
Slade, however, was not gifted the object of his obsession. He took it.
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Much like Curt Wild and Arthur Stuart, Brian Slade became obsessed with Brian Slade. Or rather, he became obsessed with the idea of Brian Slade the rock star, and his alter-ego, Maxwell Demon. While clearly a riff on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona, the Maxwell Demon character allows Slade to wear yet another mask and take his self-indulgent performance up another level. It’s the final stage of his evolution from somber, boring hippie to bisexual bon-vivant pop god.
“He thought he fucking was Maxwell Demon in the end – you know? And Maxwell Demon...he thought he was God,” Wild tells Stuart during their final meeting.
Slade began his metamorphosis as the soft-spoken singer-songwriting husband of American party girl Mandy. After discovering glam rock and embracing both the sex and drugs aspects of rock ‘n’ roll, he becomes something else entirely. He’s half-rocker, half-mod, as posh as he is punk. It’s around this time that he steals the brooch from its previous owner, the enigmatic musician Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland) during a party. Whether through the brooch’s extraterrestrial powers or his own belief in himself, Slade ascends the charts and becomes a rock star.
The ever-changing Slade shifts his obsessions as regularly as he does his colorful costumes. His infatuation with Mandy fades, and he becomes obsessed instead with Wild. He’s never truly in love with them, however, as much as he is in love with the idea of them. He basks in their adoration and soaks up their attention because it comforts him. As vain and narcissistic as Slade may be, he’s also incredibly insecure in his love for himself. Surrounding himself with people who are likewise enchanted with his persona allows him to indulge his more selfish whims. He takes what he needs from his lovers; from Mandy, he takes guidance and love, from Wild, he takes an aesthetic and a wild edge. Once he’s forced to confront the feelings of the real people beneath his romanticized projections, he runs away.
Slade becomes engulfed in his own ego and ends up feeling trapped by the Maxwell Demon persona. He fakes his death because it’s the ultimate way to run away from his problems – he must kill himself, the object of his obsession. If only he could leave it at that, though. Unable to resist the lure of the spotlight, Slade reinvents himself, has plastic surgery, and begins performing under a new name: Tommy Stone.
Stone is clearly a poke at Bowie’s attempts at mainstream success in the mid-1980s, but it also represents Slade’s inability to let go of his obsession with fame and his ego. Even though his passion ultimately (metaphorically) killed him, he dives back into it all over again.
In the triptych of rock ‘n’ roll obsession, each of the three plays a distinct role. Arthur is the fan, one of the many. He is touched by art and becomes obsessed because it makes him feel less alone. Curt Wild is the lover, obsessed out of sexual and romantic desire. Brian Slade is obsessed only with himself, his career, and his fame. Any minor obsessions are secondary to his primary agenda, which is to be as famous and beloved as possible.
His lifelong romance with himself precluded him from truly giving himself to others, fueling a tragic existence where everyone is fixated on you, but no one really cares.
Danielle Ryan is a freelance writer with a passion for things that make people uncomfortable. A cinephile before she could walk, she writes for /Film, Daily Grindhouse, Birth.Movies.Death, and others. She also occasionally guests on podcasts, where you can hear just how fluently she swears. Her current obsession is how horror cinema allows us to examine race, gender, and sexuality and understand viewpoints quite different from our own. You can find her on twitter @danirat.