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

Who Are You, Charlie Brown?


Who do you THINK you are, Charlie Brown?

(2021) Documentary (Apple Plus) Charles M. Schulz, Lupita Nyong’o (narrator), Lynn Johnston, Chip Kidd, Karen Johnson, Jean Schulz, Tyler James Nathan (voice), Terry McGurrin (voice), Isabella Leo (voice), Holly Gorski (voice), Hattie Kragten (voice), Isis Moore (voice), Wyatt White (voice), Christian Dal Dosso (voice), Jacob Soley (voice), Matthew Mucci (voice), Natasha Nathan (voice). Directed by Michael Bonfiglio

 
Since 1951, Charlie Brown, his dog Snoopy and his sister Sally, classmate Lucy van Pelt and her brother Linus as well as Schroder, Pppermint Patty, Franklin and Pigpen have all delighted and informed the childhood of generations. The simplicity and genuine love in the character brings instant nostalgia whenever we consider Lucy snatching the football away from Charlie Brown at the last moment, Snoopy winning a Christmas decoration contest for his doghouse or Linus and his security blanket.

Framed by new animation that has Charlie Brown flummoxed by an assignment at school to write an essay about who he is, this 54-minute-long documentary traces the development of the Peanuts comic strip from its very beginnings, and of course the life of its creator, Charles M. Schulz. There are plenty of archival interviews with Schulz as well as contemporary interviews with those who knew him including his widow Jean, and friend and cartoonist Lynn Johnston who looked up to him as a mentor. Actress Lupita Nyong’o provides narration.

It is perhaps the world’s worst-kept secret that Charlie Brown is essentially Schulz; along with sharing the same first name they also shared many of the same insecurities. Although the documentary doesn’t really explore this aspect, in many ways Schulz wrote the strip as a form of therapy to deal with his own doubts and fears.

There are some celebrity interviews including Billie Jean King (who inspired the creation of Peppermint Patty), filmmakers Paul Feig and Kevin Smith, actress Drew Barrymore, humorist Ira Glass, television personality Al Roker and a few young actors who will be more familiar to pre-teens than to their parents.

AppleTV Plus has become the literal custodian of the Peanuts filmed legacy including all of their beloved TV holiday specials (what’s Halloween without It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or Christmas without A Charlie Brown Christmas?) as well as new material like The Snoopy Show. In some ways, the documentary is an advertisement for the material AppleTV Plus has available and may seem a bit disingenuous in that regard, but to their credit, little of the new material is mentioned here.

It’s hard not to get the warm fuzzies from a show like this. Certainly, we can admire Schulz’ stand when Southern newspapers threatened to drop the strip after he introduced Franlin, an African-American character – and we can also temper that with the understanding that it took Schulz a while to finally add the character to the strip, despite many appeals to do so. It’s also nice to see how elements of Schulz’ own life made their way into the strip (Sally’s pet name for the unrequited focus of her affection, Linus – “My sweet Baboo” – is what Jean used to call her husband). This isn’t going to go down as a definitive biography on Schulz or a definitive analysis of his creation – that would take much longer than the time allotted here, but for beginners who are curious about the strip or for those who want to introduce their kids or grandkids – or great-grandkids – to the strip, this is a nice way to do so.

REASONS TO SEE: Evokes everyone’s childhood.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used a little more detail.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Peanuts comic strip was initially titled Li’l Folks, but concerns about copyright issues with a strip created by Tack Knight in the 1930s called Little Folks led Schulz to change the title of his creation.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Apple Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet,
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Grief! The Story of Charles M. Schulz
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Captain Marvel