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‘The Velvet Underground’ a unique doc for a unique band

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I’ll be honest with you – I’ve never really been much of a music guy. I simply don’t feel the same connection to music that so many people do. It’s not that I don’t like music, mind you. I just don’t need it in the way that true musicophiles do.

That said, I definitely dig a good music documentary. Even without that visceral, cellular-level type connection to the music, the stories behind the music – the people and places and influences that brought that music to life – remain fascinating to me.

As you might imagine, the new Todd Haynes documentary “The Velvet Underground” – currently streaming on Apple TV+ - fits the bill perfectly. To have someone like Haynes, a filmmaker with an idiosyncratic eye and an obvious adoration of music that permeates his filmography, take on one of the most influential rock bands of all time? What kind of wonderful result could we expect?

An apt one, as it turns out, a perfect marriage of documentarian and subject. Haynes proves to be just the right person to capture the frenetic bohemian energy of not just The Velvet Underground, but of their surroundings. The pieces will be familiar, but the whole into which they have been assembled is unlike any music documentary you’ve seen before. In many ways, this film is an experience – an evocative reflection of the band’s place in the cultural zeitgeist.

Oh, and be forewarned: this documentary’s atypicality extends in many directions. If you’re someone looking for a primer on The Velvet Underground, you’re going to be presented with a bit of a challenge. Yes, the story is told in a more or less linear fashion – introducing us to the main players and walking us through the inception and rise of the band – but the manner in which it is told skews more toward feeling, a pure distillation of showing rather than telling.

Honestly, it’s almost like you’re watching an album. Distinct tracks, recurring motifs – each “song” operating in a distinct and discrete manner. Stylistic shifts and jumps occur throughout, lending a sense of delineation that feels both new and familiar.

Haynes has assembled some first-rate interviewees – we spend a lot of time with founding band members John Cale and Maureen Tucker, as well as a number of other notables from the group’s heyday. We meet an assortment of musical influences and fans, as well as prominent participants in Andy Warhol’s notorious Factory scene. All this, plus a ton of archival audio featuring Lou Reed and others.

As I said, the film introduces us to the members of the band, starting with Reed. We get some background, stories of a Long Island childhood and aspirations toward rock stardom. Cale’s next, his musical development a story of multi-instrumentalism and experimentation. Sterling Morrison’s connection follows; we touch briefly on original drummer Angus MacLise before Mo Tucker takes her place behind the kit.

It wasn’t long before the band caught the attention of an icon. Andy Warhol was drawn to what The Velvet Underground was doing; an iconoclast himself, he understood Reed and the others’ desire to create something new. The Velvet Underground became the house band at the Factory, as well as major players – along with the German singer and model Nico – in Warhol’s famed traveling show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol would become their manager, with his fame and notoriety allowing the band tremendous leeway with regard to the kind of music they could make.

Not a lot of people got it – critical reception was mixed and sales were poor – but the people who did get it were utterly, almost cultishly devoted. Even as interpersonal struggles hamstrung and ultimately undermined the band, leading to its too-soon dissolution, The Velvet Underground was changing the lives of those who understood … and eventually changing the face of rock music.

As someone who isn’t tremendously familiar with The Velvet Underground’s catalog, watching this film was certainly an interesting experience. I understood the band’s reputation, the fact that their all-too-brief heyday served as the inspiration for a thousand other musical journeys. But watching their story play out, watching the scattered imagery on screen as the people who were there tried to put words to what by all accounts was a pure and visceral experience … it was just so damned compelling.

But back to Warhol. His influence is all over this movie. Not just in the narrative – though he was a significant factor in the successes that The Velvet Underground had, particularly early on – but in the film itself. Haynes and his editing team have incorporated archival footage (including Warhol’s own experimental film work) into this film, creating something that counterbalances the energies of the time with the stories as they’re being recounted. It’s the equivalent of the very multimedia presentations that Warhol created in the ‘60s – events in which the Underground took part on numerous occasions.

We also see a number of deliberate stylistic choices intended to evoke that Warholian sensibility. The liberal use of split screening, the incorporation of found imagery, the undercurrent of sound that is usually (but not always) musical – it’s all of a piece with the sight-sound extravaganzas that were Warhol’s “happenings.”

All it serves to accentuate the wonderful stories being told and memories being shared, coalescing and commingling with the vivid visual representations of both the band and the time. There are too many to list specifically (though I will note that a personal highlight came when, while discussing a trip to the West Coast, several of the interviewees made clear that The Velvet Underground straight-up hated hippies – just delightful).

“The Velvet Underground” is a remarkable piece of work, an ambitious work by a talented filmmaker who clearly sought to craft a portrait of honesty and clarity. It is stunning to look at, stylish and idiosyncratic in much the same manner as the subject it celebrates. And oh yeah – the music ain’t half bad either.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 18 October 2021 07:42

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