"Velvet Goldmine" is a movie made up of beginnings, endings and fresh starts. There isn't enough in between. It wants to be a movie in search of a truth, but it's more like a movie in search of itself. Not everyone who leaves the theater will be able to pass a quiz on exactly what happens.
Set in the 1970s, it's the story of the life, death and resurrection of a glam-rock idol named Brian Slade, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and probably inspired by David Bowie. After headlining a brief but dazzling era of glitter rock, he fakes his own death onstage. When the hoax is revealed, his cocaine use increases, his sales plummet, and he disappears from view. A decade later, in the fraught year of 1984, a journalist named Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is assigned to find out what really happened to Brian Slade.
Do we care? Not much. Slade is not made into a convincing character in "Velvet Goldmine," although his stage appearances are entertaining enough. But a better reason for our disinterest is that the film bogs down in the apparatus of the search for Slade. Clumsily borrowing moments from "Citizen Kane," it has its journalist interview Slade's ex-wife and business associates, and there is even a sequence of shots that specifically mirror "Kane"--the first interview with the mogul's former wife, Susan.
"Citizen Kane" may just have been voted the greatest of all American films (which it is), but how many people watching "Velvet Goldmine" will appreciate a scene where a former Slade partner is seen in a wheelchair, just like Joseph Cotten? Many of them will still be puzzling out the opening of the film, which begins in Dublin with the birth of Oscar Wilde, who says at an early age, "I want to be a pop idol." I guess this prologue is intended to establish a link between Wilde and the Bowie generation of crossdressing performance artists who teased audiences with their apparent bisexuality. Brian Slade, in the movie, is married to an American catwoman named Mandy (Toni Collette) but has an affair with a rising rock star named Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), who looks like Kurt Cobain, is heedless like Oscar Wilde and is so original onstage that he upstages Slade, who complains, "I just wish it had been me. I wish I'd thought of it." (His wife, as wise as all the wives of brilliant men, tells him, "You will.") The film evokes snatches of the 1970s rock scene (and another of its opening moments evokes early shots from the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night"). But it doesn't settle for long enough on any one approach to become very interesting. It's not a career film, or a rags-to-riches film, or an expose, or an attack, or a dirge, or a musical, but a little of all of those, chopped up and run through a confusing assortment of flashbacks and memories.