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

If the Dancer Dances


The dancers rehearse.

(2018) Documentary (Monument) Stephen Petronio, Merce Cunningham (archival), Meg Harper, Davalois Fearon, Gino Grenek, Rashaun Mitchell, Sandra Neels, Jaqlin Medlock, Barrington Hinds, Albert Reid, Silas Riener, Nick Sciscione, Gus Solomons Jr., Emily Stone, Joshua Tuason, David Vaughan, Andrea Weber, Mike McGinnis, Mondo Morales, Melissa Toogood. Directed by Maia Wechsler

 

Please forgive me but the first bit of this review is going to be more about me than the movie – my knowledge of modern dance is abysmal. I am unfamiliar with the important figures in it, the innovators or the dance companies that push the boundaries of the art form. It’s not that I can’t appreciate grace when I see it, but often these days that’s not a factor. Perhaps because I’m not a graceful person whatsoever, but when I see dancers move in certain ways, I am awe-stricken. When I see them moving in ways that are more athletic than anything I tend to lose interest. You should know that going into this review.

Merce Cunningham is a towering icon of modern dance whose pieces worked in collaboration with some of the great artists of his time. Rain Forest, a 1968 piece apparently inspired by his youth in Washington state, utilized set design by Andy Warhol and costumes by Jasper Johns as well as music by David Tudor. Cunningham’s work was innovative and diametrically different from anything that dance was used to; most dance companies are constantly in motion but Cunningham used stillness, slow motion and held positions which were physically challenging to the dancers of his company. Cunningham was the lead dancer in the piece as he was in most of his own pieces until he was almost 90. Cunningham continued to work creating new choreography until he died in 2009.

Stephen Petronio runs a highly respected dance company of his own. His company up until 2015 had always performed original compositions. Petronio was grappling with the idea of legacy; how do we keep dance pieces alive after the choreographers are gone. Yes, there is video but if a choreography exists without anyone dancing it, how alive is it really?

Petronio decided to take on Rain Forest and utilized three members of Cunningham’s company – Meg Harper, Rashaun Mitchell and Andrea Weber – to teach his company the moves. We begin to see that there are vast differences between styles of modern dance. Cunningham rehearsed without music, using a stopwatch and clapped beats to give the dancers their cues. The Cunningham dancers are also having to teach Petronio’s dancers an entire new way of movement, one that emanates from the back rather than the legs. For the dancers it means a whole lot of cramping.

Cunningham is treated here with hero-worship and to be honest I found that disconcerting after a while. Not that he doesn’t deserve the respect but at times it felt like there wasn’t any objectivity whatsoever not only from the dancers who could be excused for their hagiography but from the filmmakers as well, who needed to be less worshipful. Producer Lise Friedman was also a member of the Cunningham company so perhaps that has something to do with it.

This is definitely a niche film. People who are fans of modern dance or at least well-acquainted with it will find this fascinating. Others might find it confusing and dull. Fans of performing arts in general will appreciate the backstage look at rehearsals and how the work is slowly translated from Cunningham’s dancers to Petronio’s. It is in that respect a fascinating process.

REASONS TO SEE: An intimate and fascinating look backstage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Verges on the hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was timed to coincide with Cunningham’s centennial.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Long Lost