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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Linda and the Mockingbirds


For some, the border wall is more than just a barrier.

(2020) Music Documentary (Shout!) Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Eugene Rodriguez, James Keach, Lucina Rodriguez, Fabiola Trujillo, Marie-Astrid Do Rodriguez. Directed by James Keach

 

It is no secret that the current President made border security, specifically on our Southern border, a campaign issue, one which has carried over into his administration. The building of the Wall is much more than symbolic, particularly to those who have emigrated to the United States from Mexico and Central America to make a better life for their families – just as Irish immigrants did during the potato famine, as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe did during the programs, as Vietnamese immigrants did after the fall of Saigon and as any number of immigrants did from all over the world over the past two and a half centuries.

It is also no secret that Linda Ronstadt was one of the most powerful voices and popular singers of the 70s into the 80s. Of Mexican descent, she remembered fondly singing traditional songs with her family, particularly her beloved grandfather who hailed from a small village in Sonora. After making an album of the music that she so loved as a child, she became aware of the Los Cenzontles Cultural Center (cenzontles is Spanish for mockingbird), founded by guitar virtuoso Eugene Rodriguez, dedicated to teaching youth of the San Francisco Bay Area music and dance forms that are largely dying out in Mexico. He was putting together a tour in Mexico for the kids to study with masters in Mexico and Ronstadt agreed to fund them and added a date to her tour to benefit the center. She has been a patron for them ever since.

As filmmaker James Keach was putting together the documentary of Ronstadt’s life, he found the artist – now unable to sing due to Parkinson’s disease – reluctant to do an interview for her own documentary. She suggested that they do the interview in Mexico, in the village where her grandfather grew up. Keach agreed, but was surprised to find that the reason for the trip wasn’t his film, but rather for the youth of Los Cenzontles to put on a concert for the village in the public square. Along for the ride was longtime Ronstadt friend Jackson Browne, who had been introduced to the cultural center by Ronstadt, and who was inspired to rewrite his song The Dreamer about the experiences of Lucina Rodriguez (one of the two main singers of the vocal group put together by the center).

The movie is about much more than a performance. It is about the modern immigrant experience, about the fear and disquiet many of them feel as they have been demonized by the current administration. Certainly, we are shown the frustration and even rage – but this isn’t an angry film. Rather, it is about the beauty of discovering one’s own culture, of how the music, dance and traditions of our past can help us find out who we are so that we may navigate the future. It’s a powerful message and one delivered over and over again in the film.

Ronstadt does on-camera interviews here, and in some ways they are disarming. She comes off at times like an ordinary Midwestern housewife, a sleeping two-year-old grandniece at her side, but there is also pride in her background and talking about the songs of her culture clearly energizes her. Of her medical condition not one word is spoken, not one word mentioned and if the only hint of its devastating effect on her life is a wistful “I wish I could sing with those kids” as some break into song on the bus ride into Mexico, you would never know she has Parkinson’s unless you already knew – and if you didn’t, you wouldn’t find out unless you read a review like this. Ronstadt has chosen not to become a poster child for her disease and while Michael J. Fox has elected to become a spokesperson for further research into a cure for it, Ronstadt prefers not to go that route, directing her energy into Los Cenzontles instead.

The movie is heartwarming and hopeful and full of amazing music, colorful handmade costumes and lovely dancing. It is a peek into the richness of Mexico’s (and Sonora’s specifically) cultural heritage, a very worthwhile endeavor particularly if your only exposure to it has been the occasional Tijuana Brass album or mariachi night at your local Chevy’s. At just under an hour long, this documentary is a worthwhile investment of your time.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is rich, passionate and warm. A frontline look at the immigrant experience.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some may find that the film pulls its punches a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some discussion of controversial current events.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronstadt’s 1987 album Canciones de Mi Padre remains the biggest-selling non-English language album in U.S. history.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Synchronic

Echo in the Canyon


This concert is for the Byrds.

(2018) Music Documentary (GreenwichJakob Dylan, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Beck, Michelle Phillips, Lou Adler, Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, John Sebastian, Graham Nash, Fernando Pedromo, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, Matt Tecu, Norah Jones, Fiona Apple, Justine Bennett, Jade Castrinos. Directed by Andrew Slater

One of the mysteries of music is how often it coalesces in a single location – Liverpool and Greenwich village in the early 60s, Minneapolis in the 80s, Seattle and Manchester in the 90s – where all the right conditions of talent and opportunity create a marvelously creative Petri dish that gives birth to a new sound, reinvigorating the now 60 year old hoary beast that is rock music.

For an astonishingly narrow era – 1965 to 1967 – one such place was in Southern California and specifically, Laurel Canyon. Today the Canyon is a tony mixture of trendy hipsters and wealthy consumers that frequent coffee houses and boutiques at the base of the Canyon. Back then, however, it was a musician’s colony and bands like the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield and even the Beach Boys (who were already big stars dating back to the surf era) were headquartered there. They would hang out at each other’s houses, share meals and drugs as well as play stuff they were working on for each other. The cross-pollination of the music that started with the Byrds’ foray into electric folk – which came to influence Folkie Number One Bob Dylan himself – and changed pop music forever, paving the way for seminal albums like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Dylan’s progeny Jakob, himself a rock star with the Wallflowers, undertook the documentation of that scene after watching a French film called The Model Shop that starred Canadian actor Gary Lockwood as a Vietnam draftee wandering around L.A. and taking up with a French model who was trying to get back home to Paris. He started out interviewing the movers and shakers of the scene – David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. He also spoke with some of those who were heavily influenced by the so-called California Sound – Eric Clapton (then of Cream), Ringo Starr of the Beatles, John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jackson Browne and Tom Petty in one of his final interviews before his untimely death in 2017.

This is a movie that had to be made now as most of those musicians from back then are in their 70s and 80s and so many of those who shaped that scene are no longer with us. Director Andrew Slater – a former music journalist and CEO of Capitol Records – peppers the soundtrack with some of the most amazing music of any era, showing off close harmonies, and the simple yet unforgettable sound of a well-played 12-string Rickenbacker.

Dylan would organize a tribute concert in 2015 at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theater in which contemporary stars like Beck, Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor played the hit songs of that era. Rehearsal footage and concert footage of the upstarts playing the iconic music of their predecessors illustrates how timeless that music remains.

My only real problem with the movie is that you begin to wonder if this is a labor of ego more than a labor of love. Dylan conducts all the interviews and is often nodding sagely at the remarks of his subjects. He is front and center at the tribute concert and much of the time the camera is focused on him. Dylan’s career has hit a plateau of sorts and one wonders if this isn’t a means for him to re-energize it. A little less Jakob Dylan and a lot more anecdotes from the original musicians would have been much more appreciated. Also, the film focuses on the more successful bands of the era. There were plenty of other bands in the Laurel Canyon scene whose music could have also been shared. Strangely, the Doors – who also lived in the Canyon – are not mentioned at all. I suppose their music wasn’t folk enough to mix with the ethos Slater and Dylan are creating here.

The movie’s demarcation point is Neil Young’s decision to leave Buffalo Springfield in 1967 which would see Crosby follow suit. Just two years later the innocence of the era would be cruelly shattered when a group of cultists went to the home of actress Sharon Tate in neighboring Benedict Canyon and brought the Sixties crashing to a halt. Still, the music that came before those grisly events remains and continue to influence artists to this day. The contributions of those who made it deserve to be properly acclaimed and recognized for what it was – the beginning of real innovation in rock and roll.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is, of course, fantastic. The stories that the musicians tell are mainly more compelling than the rehearsal and concert footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times feels more like a labor of ego than a labor of love.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references, sexual references and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Clips from the 1969 movie Model Shop were used to add a sense of what it was like in Laurel Canyon and Los Angeles in the late Sixties.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Concert for George
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Little Woods