Last month, I went to Nitehawk Cinema for the latest in their Music Driven series, done in partnership with Noisey. They showed Todd Haynes' film Velvet Goldmine. It is loosely based on David Bowie and it was very interesting. Spanning several decades and often seen through the eyes of a fan aged into a journalist, the film follows a Bowie-esque rock star as he develops his identity, releases music, earns fame and experiences its highs and lows. Musician Nathan Larson of Shudder to Think was there for a Q&A – he helped create original music – and from him, I learned some new things. Here is what I dug about the film, plus a few things I dig about Bowie.
No Bowie? No problem.
Todd Haynes was unable to get David Bowie to sign off on the film and therefore unable to license any of his music for use. This may have seemed like an insurmountable obstacle considering they learned this only a month before production, Bowie is the film's subject, and the picture uses music heavily. Instead, Nathan Larson and a team of other producers and musicians across the globe – including Thom Yorke – put together a bunch of Bowie soundalike music. Larson made it seem like there was too little time to even worry much or judge the project; they just had to dive in, so it was a very creatively freeing process.
In the end, I think they did a very good job. Most of the songs were performed within the film, which I always appreciate. Given that Bowie produced such high volumes of diverse music, the other cool thing is that they were able to write songs in line with different phases of his career. The main character is called Brian Slade, but he develops an alter ego known as Maxwell Demon – similar to the Ziggy Stardust alias of Bowie. The music here, done by Shudder to Think, is similarly space rock with a hint of glam. Little touches such as the rising inflections at the end of words ("Roller!"), the occasional almost spoken line, or the use of a phrase like "hand jive" really make it. Compare that with "2HB" by the fake band Venus in Furs, vocals done by Thom Yorke. It's more psych and folk but hints at things to come, fitting for the earlier part of Brian Slade's career.
They nailed the music by other artists of the period as well.
Aside from Bowie, no one else had any qualms about contributing their music to the soundtrack. As much as Velvet Goldmine places the Bowie character at the center, this is a much broader look at a scene than, say, I'm Not There was, which broke down the personae of Bob Dylan (also a great film by Todd Haynes on a musician with an interesting set of constructed identities, and also a great soundtrack). They mixed songs from the era, such as "Satellite of Love," by Lou Reed, modern acts creating new music for the older time like Pulp and Grant Lee Buffalo, and covers of period songs by current musicians. This latter category was especially cool. Ewan McGregor plays Curt Wild, the Iggy Pop surrogate, and performs "TV Eye." Jonathan Rhys Meyers gets to show his chops with "Baby's on Fire," a Brian Eno cover. I think my favorite might be Placebo doing T. Rex's "20th Century Boy." As Nathan Larson said, "It's like the guitar riff."
I recommend the film, especially for its creative use of music throughout. It got me thinking about David Bowie, who I feel I don't know nearly enough about, but nonetheless have enjoyed quite a bit. He's just awesome. Here are some things I dig about the man and his music.
My favorite album of his is The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
My dad was a big Bowie fan – he got totally glammed out for a Bowie Halloween costume during college and his nickname "Fabes" would often get set to the tune of "Fame" – so I had a lot of his music on hand to explore growing up. I will always consider "Rebel Rebel" the best ever song for a jukebox, but Ziggy was what I fell hardest for. The guitar riffs of Mick Ronson hooked me initially, but over time, I appreciated all the other touches, too. The album is exceptional start to finish. I ought to devote a whole post to this sometime, but for now, a few random thoughts: "Five Years" is one of the most underrated album openers of all-time…The post-chorus riff on "Starman" rocks my world…"Ahhhhh….wham, bam, thank you, m'am!" in "Suffragette City" is a guaranteed sing along…I once tried to do "Ziggy Stardust" at a karaoke bar in Rome. It was out of my range but the spirit was there.
If you haven't listened to this album, you really should.
Bowie has done some amazing collaborations.
The movie is good at showing the musical (and non-musical) relationship between Bowie and Iggy Pop, but that's far from the only work he's done with other musicians. I remember seeing the Nine Inch Nails remix of "I'm Afraid of Americans" video a ton in my days watching the Box after school. It was creepy and cool. On the end of the spectrum, you have the Christmas classic "Little Drummer Boy" with Bing Crosby (spoofed so perfectly by Will Ferrell & John C. Reilly). It manages to transcend the awkwardness of the first two minutes. He teamed up with Mick Jagger in the mid 1980s for "Dancing in the Street," a few years after the touchstone "Under Pressure" with Queen. However, I'm going to go with "All The Young Dudes" here, which he wrote for Mott the Hoople.
He is still going strong.
Just a few months ago, Bowie surprised everyone by dropping a new album almost out of nowhere. It's only been…10 years since the last one. I haven't listened to Next Day, so I can't really place it in context. I imagine it's not the absolute best thing he's ever done, but guess what? "Next Day" as a track still sounds pretty great to me. This is a man that has reinvented himself many times over a career that spans almost 50 years old and he's still doing good work. Impressive. Check out the new video below, though it might be NSFW since it is the "explicit" version.
The next film in the series at Nitehawk from Noisey is American Hardcore. It plays this weekend. NYC people, come check it out.