The Encyclopædia Britannica defines Fan Fiction, also known as Fan Fic, as “stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator…Fan fiction is defined by being both related to its subject’s canonical fictional universe and simultaneously existing outside the canon of that universe.”
In 2014, Fan Fiction has reached new heights. “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which started out as a soft porn Fan Fic variation on “Twilight,” was hastily rewritten to change “Edward and Bella” to “Christian and Anastasia,” then published, becoming a runaway best-seller. The film version will be released next year.
Some movies are quite similar to Fan Fic, taking familiar stories and changing the details, or fictionalizing historical events and figures, as the filmmaker rewrites said history to suit his or her point of view.
Dramatic films about music are especially prone to the Fan Fic syndrome. Rather than make formulaic biopics about real people, some filmmakers attempt to capture the essence of a particular musical era with a fictional narrative. Most recently, the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) used the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ’60s as the backdrop for the anti-hero’s journey into obscurity. The Coens famously cited Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s autobiography as inspiration for a story completely unrelated to Ramblin’ Jack.
In the 1996 film “Grace of My Heart,” writer-director Allison Anders attempted to encapsulate the entire ’60s and ’70s rock era into one movie, with Illeanna Douglas as Denise Waverly, a Carole King-like figure who starts out writing songs with a character played by Eric Stoltz, who is a lot like King’s songwriting partner and later husband, Gerry Goffin. They work with a very Phil Spector-like producer (John Turturro), and then later in the film, she marries a Brian Wilson-like musical savant with self-destructive tendencies (a miscast Matt Dillon). The film fails when the fictional characters fall short of their real-life counterparts, most glaringly in the quality of the music.
1998’s “Velvet Goldmine,” written and directed by Todd Haynes, however, is in a league by itself. Haynes had always been fascinated by the early ’70s glam/glitter rock scene in England, and, after the indie success of his 1995 film “Safe,” he decided that it would be the basis for his next film. The filmmaker approached David Bowie about using several of his glam-era songs in the film, but the singer turned him down flat, citing plans to make his own film of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” (which, incidentally, has yet to materialize).
It was then that “Velvet Goldmine,” named for a Bowie song it was denied permission to use, took a turn toward Fan Fic, and never looked back.
To Todd Haynes, a gay man, the importance of glam rock was the degree to which it was sexually liberating, that it embraced androgyny, bisexuality (Bowie had famously declared himself trisexual, saying “I’ll try anything once.”), and all manner of alternative lifestyles. Bowie’s rejection turned out to be liberating for Haynes, who set out to make his own personal vision of the history of glitter, with a decidedly gay edge. This revisionist approach seemingly ignored the reality that the majority of glam rockers were straight guys, striking a flamboyant pose to sell records. Perhaps he didn’t ignore that reality, but instead subverted it, casting straight actors whose characters have sex with each other.
Christian Bale plays the film’s protagonist, journalist Arthur Stewart, who sets the “Citizen Kane”-like plot in motion by suggesting to his editor a “Whatever Happed To?” piece about ’70s glam superstar Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Myers), who’d faked his own death on stage, the ensuing controversy ruining his career and leading to his disappearance. Arthur tracks down former intimates of Slade’s, including Brian’s ex-wife Mandy (Toni Collette) and his first manager Cecil (Michael Feast). Much of the film, like “Kane,” takes place in flashbacks, where we meet the other principals, Curt Wild, a conflation of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, played by Ewan McGregor, looking uncannily like Kurt Cobain, as well as Slade’s Machiavellian manager Jerry Devine (an underutilized Eddie Izzard) and the enigmatic cipher Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland). The significance of the latter character is never fully explained, and unlike most of the characters in the film, has no obvious real-life counterpart.
While the loss of Bowie’s music led to its more personal nature, Haynes still had to come up with a soundtrack that would capture the period, and rock appropriately. He achieved this by acquiring the rights to songs by Roxy Music, T. Rex, Lou Reed, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, and Brian Eno (whose “Needle in the Camel’s Eye” provides the music for the opening credits); He also commissioned new material from contemporary artists Grant Lee Buffalo (“The Whole Shebang”) Shudder to Think (“Hot One,” “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon”) and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker (“We Are the Boys”) to create a back catalog for Brian Slade. It doesn’t all work, primarily because Ewan McGregor is an awful singer.
While some may take umbrage at the liberties Haynes has taken with the story, there is no denying the mesmerizing visuals, aided and abetted by production designer Christopher Hobbs, art director Andrew Munro, and costume designer Sandy Powell. There are also enough male-on-male sex scenes to incite gay panic in certain viewers. But, as one blogger wrote, “Velvet Goldmine” offers filmgoers a once in a lifetime opportunity to “see Batman being sodomized by Obi-Wan Kenobi.”
While “Velvet Goldmine” failed to find much of an audience upon its initial release, it has since gained cult film status among legions of fans, many of them far too young to recall the first iteration of glitter rock. Seen 16 years on, the film holds up very well as a bold, courageous, if overly self-indulgent, piece of work. Slant Magazine’s Jeremiah Kipp wrote that while some critics and audiences were “terrified of a movie with so many ideas” back in 1998, Haynes’ film endures as a “melancholic ode to freedom, and those who fight for it through art.”
“Velvet Goldmine” is available on Blu-Ray from Lionsgate Entertainment.