A confession: I was initially torn on the appropriateness of me reviewing The Velvet Underground. On the one hand, I am about as ardent a fan of director Todd Haynes as anyone in the Awards Radar community, and diving into his first-ever documentary feature film was an exciting prospect. The problem is… I have no real relationship to the subject matter. I know of the titular band, of course. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of rock history is at least aware of the seismic impact this group had on virtually every subgenre falling under the umbrella of “Alternative Rock.” But that’s about as far as my connection went.
Thankfully, preexisting affection for, or even knowledge of, the group is not a prerequisite to find this a compelling nonfiction presentation adorned with the kind of bold aesthetic signatures that we’ve come to expect from one of our most creative living filmmakers. It functions well as a narrative about the rise and fall of this seminal group of misfit artists to a layman, but it is even more successful at evoking a feeling of a particular time and place in America; the visual and aural recreations of the entire artistic “movement” they were a part of is presented hypnotically in The Velvet Underground.
By every conventional standard of documentary filmmaking, this movie should not exist. For those of you not aware (as I wasn’t until very recently), the reason why it’s taken so long for us to finally get a proper feature-length documentary on one of the most influential rock groups in American history is because of a near-total lack of decent archive footage of them during their heyday. There’s a lot of footage of later interviews and post-breakup recording sessions of co-founders Lou Reed and John Cale, guitarist and backing vocalist Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker, and singer Nico. The Warhol tribute film Songs for Drella (which cinematographer Edward Lachman spoke more about here) has recently been restored and re-released after three decades of wallowing in obscurity. But if you wanted to pull modern audiences into their work and performances from 1963 to their “official” breakup in 1973, you don’t have much to work with.
So it makes sense, in its own way, that Haynes, along with editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz, decided to go with ravenously collecting every possible surviving photo, audio and video recording of them from that era and blending it with a nearly disorienting whirlwind of clips of associated art and location shots and faces and milieus building an aggressive collage of where and when these artists were forming their identity.
The result is less of a linear nonfiction account – though this is, oddly, one of the most narratively “straightforward” of Haynes’ films – and more of an impression of how their music feels and what influences shaped it as it was being formed. While a montage of 50’s-era appliances playing alongside John Cale’s description of their signature electrical omnipresent “humming” sound as a reflection of the “sounds of the modern world” may seem Lord Privy Seal-ish in its visual shorthand on paper, the footage itself flows so intuitively between clips that are heavy-handed to unexpected to elliptical to a rare scene of the band’s performances, that none of the imagery associated with the surviving band members’ recollections feels clumsily or haphazardly inserted. As if that didn’t overwhelm your senses enough, The Velvet Underground also takes a page from former band manager Andy Warhol and utilizes split screens, blending of “pop art” hyper-saturated color grading with washed out black-and-white restorations, and behind-the-scenes footage of the controlled chaos of The Factory.
Within this ocean of sound and image is an all-too-familiar story of Boomer-era rise-and-fall rock legends, though apparently the “rise” part is relatively modest since The Velvet Underground never enjoyed much commercial success when they were together. Much like their pop contemporaries John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Lou Reed and John Cale were volatile personalities, with their gigantic egos clashing frequently. Nico’s erratic behavior and artistic ambitions motivated her to quit and strike out on her own as a solo artist. Andy Warhol was… well, Andy Warhol.
Another helpful addition are helpful critical and historical analyses provided by film critic Amy Taubin (including her helpful reminder that nearly all of your parents’ favorite male artists were, to be generous, not exactly chivalrous toward women, and the culture of The Factory was no exception) and the late Jonas Mekas in his last recorded film interview.
I imagine there are probably issues a more knowledgeable fan could take with the film. I for one couldn’t shake the feeling that Maureen “Moe” Tucker, the band’s longest-serving drummer, was getting a short shrift. While her unintentional discovery of herself as a solo artist and singer late in the movie is one of its most endearing scenes, it’s hard for me to imagine her percussion didn’t have more of an impact on the unique musical identity of the band as a whole.
But I am thankful to report that one doesn’t need to be a longtime fan of The Velvet Underground to find The Velvet Underground worth watching. Haynes proves himself just as powerful and ambitious as a documentarian as he’s been a narrative feature filmmaker, and in many ways finds himself summing up many of his longstanding intellectual and aesthetic proclivities with this fascinating film.
It’s effective as a factual account of their work and lives and influence, but it’s truly something special as a psychedelic sensory journey through the ferocious impressions, emotions, stories, sights, and sounds of a quiet musical revolution out of almost nothing.