The Velvet Underground

New York cool, circa 1966.

(2021) Music Documentary (AppleTV Plus) John Cale, Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, Doug Yule, Mary Woronov, Barbara Walters, Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, Jonas Mekas, Billy Name, Jonathan Richman, Jackson Browne, Martha Morrison, Merrill Reed Weiner, Joseph Freeman, Allen Hyman, Henry Flynt, Terry Philips, Marian Zazeela, Shelley Corwin, Amy Taubin. Directed by Todd Haynes

 

Some bands make an impact because of their massive popularity; others because of some element of their style which would go on to become influential of other bands that came after. Still others are very much a product of their time and place.

The Velvet Underground fits the latter two categories. They were born in the early Sixties when wanna-be rock star Lou Reed met Welsh avant garde enthusiast John Cale, who had moved to New York to work with La Monte Young who had perfected the art of the long, sustained drone. They hooked up with guitarist Sterling Morrison, whom Reed knew from his time at Syracuse University. Finally, Maureen “Moe” Tucker finished the group on drums.

Their music was for its time way out of the norm. Naturally, artistic sorts like Andy Warhol drifted into their sphere. The band became a regular at the Factory, Warhol’s art space. Warhol became their de facto manager and at his urging, the group added German model Nico to front the band along with Reed. She participated on the first album, the one with the banana on the cover, drawn by Warhol himself. Even with the star power behind them, the band never sold a lot of records while they were around. Tensions would escalate between Reed and Cale until Reed essentially fired him from the band. Doug Yule was brought aboard and when Reed himself left the band, would valiantly soldier on until he, too, eventually abandoned the project.

Director Todd Haynes wasn’t interested in creating a standard rock documentary. There are talking heads here, but for most of the film they are more disembodied voices. Some of the interviews are actually pretty wonderful (Richman, Tucker – one of the two surviving Velvets) although some are a little too self-promoting, but I don’t think that this was necessarily about paying tribute to the band.

Haynes, instead, wanted the viewers to get a sense of the band’s era, and of the New York art scene that sprouted them. He wanted the audience to hear the band as if they were hearing them for the first time in that place and time. In this he was unsuccessful, in my opinion.

Haynes has the Factory to fall back on, and the hours and hours of footage shot at that collective. He often has it playing in the background during interview sessions. We see some performance footage from the band, but not a lot. In fact, we don’t even hear the band’s music until we’re 50 minutes in to the nearly two-hour movie. There are an awful lot of cinematic non-sequiturs – commercials and television footage meant to show how America was portraying itself in the media as a consumer’s paradise. Some of the footage is wonderful, to be sure, but it comes off as condescending and pompous and not very useful to the task at hand.

I’ve always found Haynes’ work to be a little too pretentious for my tastes, but I know a lot of people whom I respect who think he’s the bees knees. Fair enough. Still, if you’re wanting to find out about the Velvet Underground, your best bet is always to actually listen to their music – it’s readily available on Spotify, Amazon Music and other sources. However, if you are hoping to get more educated about the band by watching this movie, I don’t think it’s likely. But you’ll get an education about Warhol and the Factory, though.

REASONS TO SEE: Some wonderful archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too much cinematic excess. Less about the band’s actual music and more about the place and time they existed in.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexuality, nudity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Velvet Underground got their name from a book about deviant sex.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews; Metacritic: 88/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enter the Void
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Becoming Cousteau

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