Like something from a Hollywood sci-fi spectacle, Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998) begins with a UFO flung out of space, whooshing down from the twinkling cosmos and into the sleepy, storybook night of 19th century Dublin. There’s a Starman waiting in the sky: he’d like to come and meet us, and his name is Oscar Wilde. “I want to be a pop idol,” the extraterrestrial poet declares, sparking the film’s glam rock revolution. Somewhere across time and space, a wholesome all-American star is singing sweet ballads of the heart, an outsider in her own body; calling occupants of interplanetary, most extraordinary craft. Her name is Karen Carpenter, and in Haynes’ 1988 cult film Superstar, the easy-listening icon is played by none other than that PVC pop princess – and subject of 2023’s biggest motion picture – Barbie.
Drawing on the conventions of TV movie melodrama, after-school special and lurid true crime exposé, the 43-minute Superstar re-stages Carpenter’s rise and tragic demise – one half of 70s hitmakers the Carpenters, she was dead at 32 from the complications of anorexia nervosa – entirely with a cast of 12-inch plastic performers. The young filmmaker, then just two years out of being enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts, saw it an as experiment in form, wondering if – much like a great pop song – an audience would be moved to feel emotion based on their familiarity with the conventions, despite the wildly exaggerated execution. To borrow the term Greta Gerwig was fond of invoking for her take on Barbie’s complex femininity: it was “authentically artificial”. Few filmmakers better understand the power of artifice to reveal emotional truth. In Haynes’ pop worlds, reality and fiction haunt each other to create a new kind of fantasy.
At once ferociously camp and emotionally devastating, Superstar serves as a virtual miniature of Haynes’ favourite concerns – public versus private personae, the mutability of identity, domestic illness, women’s desire – that run all the way through to his latest, the exquisite true-crime melodrama May December. Carpenter was, like the ostensibly anodyne pop she and her brother Richard purveyed, a paradox: a goody-goody princess wracked with darkness and deep self-loathing, whose soothing songs for troubled times were a mask for the turmoil tearing her up from within. “We will see how Karen’s visibility as a popular singer only intensified certain difficulties many women experience in relation to their bodies,” a matter-of-fact interstitial title informs the viewer, as Haynes proceeds to literally chip away at the contours of his leading lady, the perfectly sculpted ideal of femininity for which Karen would fatally reach.
It is a deeply moving and empathic work, repulsed by an American entertainment machine rotted to the (doll)core but finely attuned to the plight of its heroine and her appeal to those on the margins of society. The emotional effect is heightened by the film’s formal artifice, like watching a perfect life melt in a microwave – a superstar on top of the world, who won’t be surprised to find that it’s all a dream. Perhaps understandably, Richard Carpenter – portrayed, by Ken (natch), as a whiny taskmaster – hated the film and succeeded in blocking its wider release, consigning Superstar to distribution purgatory and fanning its cult legend. Ironically the film, and its fandom (see, for example, Sonic Youth’s tough and tender tribute, 'Tunic (Song for Karen)' ), may have done more to rehabilitate Karen’s artistic standing – to afford her the mantle of genius she was denied in life – than anything officially sanctioned by the estate.
If stardom cruelly, physically transformed Carpenter, then it empowered and liberated the artists at the heart of Haynes’ dizzy, otherworldly glam rock fantasia Velvet Goldmine, made a decade after Superstar but electrified by the same experimental daring. A glittering film à clef that scrambles the real-world likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan and Lou Reed, it follows a journalist and former fan (Christian Bale) on a quest to locate the missing rock idol Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), embracing glam’s own love of camp and artifice in the process.
“Glam rock was so Wildean in its notions of artificiality and completely constructed sexuality,” Haynes told New Queer Cinema scholar B. Ruby Rich. “It had such a spirit of curiosity about multiple selves and sexual orientations.” Like Superstar’s use of Mattel dolls, who return to enact Velvet Goldmine’s most touching, unguarded moment of love between the dishy Slade and proto-punk rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), the film’s pursuit of artifice allows Haynes to explore the fluidity of gender and identity and capture glam’s queer essence. If art, per the movie’s patron alien saint, is “the supreme reality” and life “a mere mode of fiction,” then Velvet Goldmine is its glam apotheosis: a lipstick-and-glitter dissertation on the radical instability of identity and the transformative power of pop music.
Among the film’s blistering soundtrack of Bolan, Reed, Roxy Music and Brian Eno, Haynes had wanted to feature Bowie, but the Thin White Duke refused permission, presumably to retain his music for another project that never eventuated. It turned out to be a blessing. Bowie’s absence only makes him more powerful, Haynes’ portrait more revealing as it unravels the hall of mirrors – Brian Slade, Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie, David Jones. Velvet Goldmine’s Bowie simulacrum might be closer to the artist than any of the licensed reanimations on screen: see, for example, 2022’s Moonage Daydream, a so-called ‘experiential odyssey’ whose overheated exertions betrayed its meat-and-potatoes thesis.
Bowie’s response to Velvet Goldmine was as nonplussed as the film’s initially mixed reception, but Haynes would not be deterred. In 2007 he returned to rock ’n’ roll iconography with I’m Not There, a kaleidoscopic feature freely inspired, as its credits sequence announces, “by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan.” An artist who delighted in myth-making and biographical obfuscation, the man born Robert Zimmerman proved irresistible to the filmmaker. “I just found this refusal to be fixed as a single self in a single voice as a key to his freedom,” Haynes told Rolling Stone. “Dylan is difficult and mysterious and evasive and frustrating, and it only makes you identify with him all the more as he skirts identity.” This time, the man himself signed off on the project.
Doubling – or more accurately, sextupling – down on Velvet Goldmine’s fictive personae, the film refracts Dylan through a prism of his own creations, turning the songwriter into a pose-able plastic prophet, like some rock ’n’ roll Ken doll. Collect ’em all: folky troubadour (Bale, again), petulant movie star (Heath Ledger), teenage romantic poet (Ben Whishaw), grizzled outlaw (Richard Gere), original bluesman (14-year-old Black actor Marcus Carl Franklin). In the film’s most live-wire incarnation, a queer-coded electric Dylan – played by Cate Blanchett as a shock of wild hair and attitude – tumbles through a Fellini-esque funhouse of the grotesque, eschewing the documentary cinéma vérité of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back for a carnivalesque glimpse into a superstar’s fraying mind.
I’m Not There doesn’t so much turn the overdetermined conventions of the rock biopic inside out as dispatch them, via flying saucer, to a wormhole in deep space (it can’t be mere coincidence that Haynes’ reinvention of the genre appeared alongside its greatest satire, Walk Hard), running pop’s inherent playfulness through an intoxicating identity blender of age, race, gender and sexuality. The film delivers Dylan from the granola analysis of rock pedants and back to the pop cosmos, forever elusive, inscrutable, enigmatic – right where our brightest stars should be. Even the film’s title implies acknowledges the slipperiness its subject. As Blanchett’s Dylan rambles, stoned and alone in the back of stardom’s limo ride to nowhere: “Its meaningless is holy.”
Taken together as a loose trilogy, these films represent a dizzying essay on pop in all its artifice and indelible contradictions, where the surface – the style, the artifice – is the essence of the emotion. As that interstellar dandy Oscar Wilde once put it: “What is true about music is true about life: that beauty reveals everything, because it expresses nothing.”
– Luke Goodsell is a critic, editor and festival programmer whose writing has appeared at ABC Arts, Metrograph, MUBI Notebook, The Monthly, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and elsewhere. He is the Critics Campus Producer for the Melbourne International Film Festival.