When Todd Haynes decided to make a film loosely based on the life of David Bowie, he took a similar approach to his idea that Allison Anders did when she wanted to make a film about a Carole King in “Grace of My Heart.” That approach was to use significant events from their subject’s lives, but make a fiction film and to change things enough to make their films more dramatically interesting. The approach was smart in both cases, because they didn’t have to worry about being factually accurate and could tell whatever story they wanted.
The result isn’t perfect, but Haynes’s film “Velvet Goldmine” is mesmerizing and he hired some great 1990s-era musicians to recreate the highlights from the English glam-rock era. “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” is Shudder to Think’s variation on Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and “All the Young Dudes” and it’s a damn good song. The lyrics even recall “Dudes” directly: “Six feet down when I’m 25” is similar to the first verse in “Dudes.”
This film appears to be based on Carole King’s life … but not exactly. Because writer-director Allison Anders did a very smart thing when she came up with “Grace of My Heart.” Instead of going the straight biopic route … and getting raked over the coals for fudging details of what actually happened to keep the story moving, she fictionalized her account. This way, she could create composites of people, tell a compelling story, and keep people focused on her film. And, instead of trying to buy the rights to all of the great songs from the Brill Building era (which would have been cost-prohibitive), she hired the composers of that period (Burt Bachrach, Gerry Goffin, etc) and teamed them up with Elvis Costello and others to write new songs. This was another incredibly smart move, because not only are the new songs terrific in their own right, but having the old songs would have further distracted audiences from the narrative.
Anders script and directing are terrific. There’s loads of great actors in this film (Eric Stoltz, Matt Dillon, Patsy Kensit, Bridget Fonda, John Turturro), but Illeana Douglas towers above them all in the performance of her career as the lead, Edna Buxton. She should have copped an Oscar nomination for this. Unfortunately, even though Martin Scorsese was Executive Producer, the film was released by Gramercy Pictures (the mini-major created by Universal Pictures and Polygram Films), who botched the release of a lot of terrific films of the period (“Dazed and Confused,” “Mallrats,” “Bound,” “Kalifornia”) that are now considered classics. When they had the occasional hit (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Fargo”), it seemed purely accidental. But I digress …
This is the musical highlight of the film, in my opinion. “God Give Me Strength” was written by Burt Bachrach and Elvis Costello and is sung by Kristen Vigard (Douglas is lip-syncing).
If you want to hear a great podcast about this film, check out The Projection Booth’s episode on this film. It’s really terrific.