“Give Him a Mask and He’ll Tell You the Truth”: The Life and Death Of Ziggy in Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Biopics tread in blasphemy. There is something impossible about trying to recreate an iconic moment or figure. How can you restore what was once so revolutionary and immediate? How could you tackle such a feat?

The film Velvet Goldmine radicalized the biopic genre, as it is an indirect and abstract representation of a person, rather than an in-depth and exact study of their life. Velvet Goldmine began as a biopic about David Bowie, his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, and the revolutionary glam era. However, once Bowie discovered that the producers were basing their material off his ex-wife’s autobiography, he backed out of the project and forbade them from using his music and likeness. Director Todd Haynes used this death blow as an opportunity to create something new and innovative. Rather than copying Bowie’s life, Haynes condensed multiple glam figures and events into one Bowie-esque character named Brian Slade. The film uses several amalgamated characters who embody the styles and attitudes of people like Bowie, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, and Lou Reed. Although the project does not include Bowie, he is still very present.  

What was initially proposed as a straight-forward biopic became a groundbreaking examination of identity, performance, excess, and all things glam.  Because glam is such an extreme genre, it enhances the film’s real and unreal perspective, as characters are based on real people but exaggerated and condensed.

“Brian Was Elegance Walking Arm and Arm With a Lie”

Velvet Goldmine focuses on how these characters made people feel, and the legacy they cultivated. In other words, it is more preoccupied with how these personas impacted the world, versus how these figures view themselves. I don’t think this would have been possible had Bowie been involved with the project, as we never hear from his movie counterpart, just from the people around him. Although Brian Slade is the central figure in the film, we only see from his perspective at the beginning and end of the movie. Even then, Slade has no dialogue in either of these scenes, which again emphasizes that this is not his story.

In addition to being a unique music biopic, one which include songs either done glam or modern covers of older songs, Velvet Goldmine is an unconventional murder mystery. It begins with the death of Brian Slade, a moment which exaggerates the death of Ziggy Stardust. For context, during a performance as Ziggy Stardust, Bowie announced that he was killing off the character and leaving the band. This was a significant moment for Bowie’s career, but also for music history. Ziggy Stardust was quite popular, so killing him off seemed crazy at the time. As well, people were unsure if this also meant Bowie was ending his career.

While Bowie continued to make music, and even went through a few different alter egos, he never stayed with one persona for more than a few albums. His reason was that these characters were both liberating and restrictive, as he had trouble writing as himself, but also had trouble writing as the same person for too long.

Velvet Goldmine reframes Ziggy’s death to highlight the extreme way people reacted to Bowie’s announcement. Slade fakes his death via assassination on stage during a show. It is the first scene in the film, and it introduces us to who Slade is, and the dramatic impact he left in people. Although he does not actually die, the characters treat Slade as if he had for the rest of the film. We follow Arthur Stuart as he tries to track down Slade on the anniversary of the fake assassination, although he never finds Slade. Without spoiling the ending- it has an incredible twist- Slade’s dramatic retirement is a symbolic death for the film, which explains why we never hear his perspective during the film. He is not technically dead, but for the purposes of the narrative, he is no longer alive.

There are multiple Citizen Kane references in Velvet Goldmine, even a few shot for shot remakes. Both films use the same narrative device, as each begins with a significant death, follows the aftermath of that death, accounts from various people, and flashbacks. Just as the opening to Citizen Kane has been so overly studied, I want to focus on how Slade’s death opens the film.

“It’s Funny How Beautiful People Are When They’re Walking Out the Door”

We begin backstage as Slade finishes his dramatic blue makeup and exchanges glances with his assistant. They both seem to know that something intense is about to happen on stage, but neither speaks. At call time, Slade walks towards the stage curtains as various rowdies and hands bustle around him. He takes a final beat, breathes in a cigarette, and marches on stage. There is a sense of impending doom and calmness during this sequence, as Slade is too calm. He contrasts this busy environment and is almost emotionless.

There are layers of performance and excess happening on stage. As fans rush towards the pit, small white feathers begin to fall onto the crowd, propelled by large fans. Everything is pushed to the extreme, from the makeup, hair, lights, and sharp blue tones. Slade of course is the pinnacle of extreme, with his blue hair and bedazzled jumpsuit. All of these elements construct an unreal environment, a dream-like and alien world where time moves differently.

The scene slowly dissolves into a martyrdom tableau, as the music fades out and changes when Stuart notices an ominously dressed dark figure in the corner of the room. The music starts to drag and we get this eerie ringing sound as the shots get closer, literally. The camera begins to close in on Slade, Stuart, and the gun, not even the assassin, just his weapon. They are the only ones who seem aware of what is about to happen, as Slade turns towards the assassin as he cocks the gun.

The two shots which follow this beat are arguably my favourite in the film. First, we get Stuart’s slow realization that something horrible is about to happen, and that he cannot do anything about it. He is stuck in the crowd, no longer looking at Slade but at the gunman. We get this blurry close up of him, as the camera tracks towards him, but out of focus. This shot summarizes Stuart’s emotional state, specifically his dawning realization and simultaneous confusion. The following shot is radically different in every sense. We get a centered mid shot of Slade as the feathers fall around him. He is perfectly still and no longer facing the assassin. Unlike the shifting feathers, Slade is frozen, as though time has stopped but only for him. He is also shown in complete focus, suggesting that he knows exactly what is about to happen and has accepted it.

Slade’s costume also acts as a form of foreshadowing in the scene, as his blue jumpsuit has a collar of long feathers. The stage is already covered with feathers, and it is a slightly violent and over-saturated image. It is as though someone ripped them off a bird or torn a bird to pieces. Slade’s feathers make him slightly bird-like, and eventually these feathers act as a wreath or burial shroud once he falls to the ground with the other feathers. It is a violent symbol for Slade’s death, and the weightlessness he feels about it.

After the gun goes off, the scene speeds up with a shot of the gun and then the assassin in quick succession. In fact, these two shots collapse onto one another, and this frame of the assassin becomes the same frame as the gun. Even as the crowd dispersed, Stuart remains centered, as unlike the other figures, and the earlier unfocused shot, he now understands what has happened and from where.

I chose this sequence because it mirrors Bowie’s career in such a direct and yet indirect fashion. Just as Bowie told the production that they couldn’t use him in the film, so too does Slade tell us that he is symbolically dead for the rest of the film. The film never presumes to know what Slade or Bowie were thinking, or how they want to be represented. It instead focuses on people like its audience members, people who were swept up in the Ziggy Stardust mania and felt confused and interested in who Bowie was.

Although some of the film’s characters were mistreated by Slade, the film remains optimistic about Slade/Bowie’s impact on the world, and their ability to reinvent themselves. Brian Slade is a David Bowie’s alter ego, much like Ziggy Stardust, but not one he created or even liked. Rather, it was one created by fans of Bowie, those were who trying to cope with a world so influenced and yet so removed from that radical figure.