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

Cryptozoo


Giant snakes always make a movie better.

(2021) Animated Feature (Magnolia) Starring the voices of Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Emily Davis, Alex Karpovsky, Zoe Kazan, Louisa Krause, Angeliki Papoulia, Thomas Jay Ryan, Peter Stormare, Grace Zabriskie. Directed by Dash Shaw

 

Some readers may be old enough to remember the underground comics of the 1960s and 1970s in which artists such as R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Trina Robbins made comic strips distinctly aimed at adults, laden with sex, drugs and what have you. A kind of counterculture acid trip made printable, these comics enjoyed a brief heyday and their influence can be felt today in online comic strips, from which sprang Dash Shaw (My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea).

His latest has the look and feel of those halcyon works of art with a touch of 70s tarot cards mixed in. The visual style has a reason; the movie is set in an alternate version of the Sixties. Hippies Amber (Krause) and Matthew (Cera) wander into the woods near San Francisco to get stoned and have sex. Naked in the afterglow and not having come down from their high quite yet, they decide to go exploring and run into an impossibly high fence. Matthew immediately wants to see what’s behind it whereas Amber is a bit more cautious. When Matthew spies a castle (“Walt Disney must live there” he exclaims), Amber reluctantly follows. The two then see something even more incredible; a unicorn, but when Matthew stumbles and falls when trying to touch the creature, the animal gets spooked leading to tragedy.

The unicorn is one of hundreds of mythological creatures from all over the world called cryptids who have been gathered in this preserve as a means of protecting them and educating the public about them. They have been gathered in this enclosure, called the Cryptozoo, by Joan (Zabriskie), an elderly wealthy philanthropist. Her right hand is Lauren Gray (Bell), who as an army brat in Okinawa encountered a baku, a Japanese creature resembling a pig/baby elephant hybrid, that eats bad dreams. Since then, she has tracked down legendary creatures and brought them to this place, a kind of Jurassic Park for mythical creatures. She is on the lookout for the baku but then again, so is the U.S. military in the form of Nicholas (Ryan) who seeks to weaponize the cryptids ad put an end to any discussion of any military supremacy other than American. Lauren is aided by Phoebe (Papoulia), a gorgon (don’t call her Medusa) who longs to fit in to society with a normal husband and a normal life.

However, bad things are happening at the Cryptozoo and things have been loosed that shouldn’t ever have been confined. Will Joan’s dream of integrating the cryptids into society be destroyed, or should the cryptids be free to live as they choose – even if they must remain hidden?

There’s a lot going on in this movie – maybe a little too much. There are some of the obvious subtexts – wariness of the military-industrial complex, respect the environment and ecology, zoos and other places where wildlife are kept for public display are inherently bad places, and the like. It’s a lot to pack in to an hour and a half and at times the movie seems lost in its own maze of subtexts.

What works here is the animation; it is inventive (as is the story itself) and most of the time, gorgeous to look at. Clearly a lot of imagination went into this and you see all of it on the screen. While the drawings themselves aren’t super-detailed (this is hand drawn 2D rather than CGI) the viewer is allowed to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. I find that’s the sign of a director who trusts his audience.

My main objection is that the story can be hard to follow at times; there is a fragmentation that occurs because I think Shaw and his wife and creative partner Jane Samborski (who supervised the animation) had so much to say that they could have easily fit it in to several films. I imagine when you are doing something as labor-intensive as an animated feature, there is a tendency to want to fit as much in as possible, but in this case it hurt the movie a little bit.

The film continues to play the Florida Film Festival the rest of the week and Florida residents still can purchase a virtual copy, although they are going fast. If you’re not able to do so, the movie will be released theatrically in August and it might be better seen on the big screen anyway. Animation this gorgeous deserves the best possible presentation.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully inventive and gorgeous animation.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story is a bit disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sex, violence and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at Sundance earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Unicorn
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
After Antarctica

Herb Alpert Is…


The brass still gleams.

(2020) Music Documentary (AbramoramaHerb Alpert, Jerry Moss, Lani Hall, Sting, Quincy Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendes, Lou Adler, Terry Lewis, Bill Moyers, Randy Alpert, Jimmy Jam, Quest Love, Chloe Flower, Richard Carpenter, Eden Alpert, Hussain Jiffry, Ken Robinson, John Pisano, Chip Tom, Eric Pryor, Richard W. Lariviere, Bill Cantos, Aria Alpert Adjani. Directed by John Scheinfeld

 

In the early-to-mid Sixties, the biggest musical group in the world was the Beatles. All the kids listened to them. But it might surprise you to know what their parents were listening to; Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The two groups were the biggest selling musical acts in the United States in 1965 and 1966. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve heard “A Taste of Honey” at some point in your life. You’ve had to.

In the sixties, his music served as something of a soundtrack. It was used as incidental music on The Dating Game and could be heard in movies and of course, on the radio. As ubiquitous as his music was, he might be best remembered in the music business for being the “A” in A&M Records, whose roster of artists included at one time or another Janet Jackson, The Carpenters, Carole King, The Police, Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66, Bryan Adams, Soundgarden, The Black-Eyed Peas, Sheryl Crow, Peter Frampton, Styx, Amy Grant, Joe Jackson, the Neville Brothers, Atlantic Starr, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Human League, Oingo Boingo, Hugh Masakela, Iggy Pop, the Neville Brothers, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Cat Stevens, the Tubes, Simple Minds, UB40, Rick Wakeman, Supertramp, Bill Withers and the Stranglers.

These days, Alpert spends a lot of time sculpting and painting. Music has taken a back seat to the visual arts, although he still dabbles. He sold the record company years ago, and is able to live a pretty comfortable lifestyle. He’s reached a point in his life where people tend to turn inward and ask themselves “Did I do okay?” It is also the time of life when documentarians tend to come knocking on your door.

Scheinfeld has assembled some pretty impressive interviews, and Alpert himself, notoriously an introvert, actually proves to tell some pretty fun stories. The tone of the film is, as you might expect, somewhat reverent and if you’re looking for a “warts and all” portrayal here, you will likely be disappointed. Still, the archival footage is absolutely amazing – the TJB were making music videos back in the early Sixties before just about anybody else – and you get to hear a little bit more than just ten-second snippets of songs.

Alpert seems to be a pretty forward-looking guy as most artists tend to be. Still, in an era when looking forward tends to bring on depression, it was a pleasure to look back a bit. My mom and dad owned the South of the Border album and they played the heck out of it – I’m surprised it still plays (my mom still has the album somewhere). It represents a simpler, more innocent era to me, and I lived in Southern California – the perfect environment to hear Alpert’s music. Some today might mutter about cultural appropriation and watered-down version of Mexican music, but it was more than an accompaniment to chips and salsa at your local Mexican chain restaurant. It introduced a lot of people to a different type of music and made them receptive to hearing still more. Whatever you think of the TJB, you have to admit that Alpert made an indelible mark on the music industry and thus, on our lives. For my money, he done good.

REASONS TO SEE: The music clips are a little longer than usual for this genre. There is some terrific archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film occasionally descends into hagiography.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alpert got his start in the music business as a songwriter; among the songs that he wrote was the classic Sam Cooke song “Wonderful World.”
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20.20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews; Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Great Deceiver