During the thrilling opening credits of Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine,” smiling British teenyboppers chase a new generation of dandified rock royalty through the streets of London, as the soundtrack bombards us with the jubilant tumult of Brian Eno’s 1973 “Needles in the Camel’s Eye.” That song, with its jangly synthetic din, its chorus of male voices chanting and rising and falling on top of one another, seems to give form to some long-suppressed ecstasy that has suddenly burst into the sunlight. That’s what “Velvet Goldmine” is about: a spirit that broke free in early-’70s rock & roll — but one that also had to break free from rock & roll.
Haynes, the brilliantly audacious director of “Safe” (1995) and “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (1989), spins an elegant fantasia out of two mythical — and thinly fictionalized — youth-cult antiheroes. Pouty, flamboyant Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the film’s David Bowie figure, starts out as a failed hippie but repackages himself as a polymorphous (or is it just polyester?) intergalactic mannequin. His American counterpart, and an obvious gloss on Iggy Pop, is Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), a madly wasted proto-punk visionary who outdoes Jim Morrison by performing in black leather pants and with a nude torso, using nihilism and noise to explode the counterculture from within.
On the surface, these two characters — one a grand poseur, the other as raw as anarchy — couldn’t be more different. What fuses them, in a word, is sex. As the film presents it, glam rock, with its gay-side-of-Carnaby Street haberdashery, marked the pivotal moment when the free-love homilies of the ’60s gave way to something wilder and (perhaps) truer: the dizzy realization that sexual freedom meant blurring the certainties of gender itself. The bisexual-but-married Slade and the I’ll-try-anything dynamo hunk Wild become partners, in music and in bed. Their relationship is a metaphor for what the sci-fi peacockery of glam, with its cabaret flash and panache, was really all about: a merging — and transcending — of male and female spirits. “Velvet Goldmine” is no masterpiece, but, at its best, it’s a ravishing rock dream.