1998’s Velvet Goldmine celebrated it’s 4K re-release at the Tribeca Film Festival
The musical drama following journalist, Arthur Stuart’s (Christian Bale), investigation of glam rocker, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and his relationship with fellow musician, Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), couldn’t have come at a more precedent time. The film’s themes regarding sexual identity and pop culture have only grown stronger and more resonant as the American relationship with sexuality has changed. What was taboo is now trendy, and with those changes comes the risk of cultural exploitation, but also new avenues for self discovery. I had spoke with director Todd Haynes, producer Christine Vachon, and actors Micko Westmoreland and Clara McGregor about the film’s legacy and how the film’s themes apply today.
The Knockturnal: Velvet Goldmine relishes in the transition between when queer culture was transgressive/shocking and when it became trendy. Can you be transgressive in a post-transgressive world?
Todd Haynes: That’s a really important question. It’s worth thinking about how sexuality stayed outside the status quo, ideas of queerness, particularly in relation to the early ’70s. What’s weird about this era is that it crossed into the mainstream almost accidentally, and it set the stage for many expectations that were then fulfilled in different ways in pop culture but then went back into the closet in the ’80s. So, you see this dance between the margins and the spotlight. I think the margins are important to remember because that’s where a lot of political and cultural power exists, on the edges, not in the center.
Micko Westmoreland: A lot of the same stuff is going on today, with the non-binary discourse and trans issues. I think what’s interesting about Velvet Goldmine and why it still resonates is because it’s shot in a certain time period, reflecting back on the early 70s, so the film is halfway between then and now. The battle still goes on, people’s rights to express themselves, and I couldn’t be more in support of that.
The Knockturnal: The film’s backdrop is the anxieties within the queer community about mainstreaming LGBT culture. Where do you see the line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange?
Micko Westmoreland: It’s difficult to see how the discourse projects from the culture it affects, but ultimately it’s about how people within that environment. Acceptance is really the key. Certainly, in the U.K., there was Clause 28 in the ’80s, which was all about removing any queer references from education, and it was eventually defeated. It was a seismic victory for queer rights and really individual freedom. These things fears are just that, fear, and progressively as culture opens up, it becomes more acceptable to be who you wanna be and get used to the ideas. So to get back to your original question, there is an appropriation that goes on, but it’s in a sense for the greater good because you have no control over the idea of something. What is important is that the idea is proliferated and prospered and becomes more accepting.
I mean what gets me is that the man on the street, Joe Public, what are they so bothered about, why does it concern them, why is it their business? It’s really none of their business as long as no one’s breaking the law. So people can really do and get on with what they need to do to be who they are. Everyone else will just have to get used to it, and that’s what the film celebrates.
The Knockturnal: As queer culture has become more mainstream and generally expected, do you see this film’s style of spectacular spectacle queerness still liberating, and if so, for whom?
Christine Vachon: I think at the end of the day, the movie is really about finding yourself and deciding you want to be who you are. It kind of doesn’t matter, whether it was 50 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, or now, and there are all different paths.
Clara McGregor: I think anything can be liberating if it comes from an authentic source, from the people who experienced it first-hand. I think there’s a lot more to uncover within queer culture and narrative, but I think anything can be authentic if we look for narrative in the people who lived it rather than trying to make it seem like we know what they went through.
The Knockturnal: How do sexual/cultural discovery themes through pop culture relate in today’s social media age?
Micko Westmoreland: There are a lot of discussion points in relation to so-called social media, but the fact that it’s corporate is what I find disappointing. People tend to sort of pick Instagram out as the best of the bunch, whereas traditionally, people would go to record stores or the NME in the U.K. or Melody Maker, etc., as a focal point for a scene trend-set to one with a better description. Whereas when it’s the corporate industry, which is largely in control of information and what people have access to, there’s a concern there, especially if it’s unregulated. They’re doing their own business for the law, and the law is playing catch up.
Christine Vachon: Yeah, I’d say if we made the movie to take place today, it’d be all about TikTok *laughs*