‘The Velvet Underground’ Review — An Uncompromising Portrait of Uncompromising Artists

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The Velvet Underground Review

There were the great bands of the ‘60s, and then there was The Velvet Underground. Not only did the band fronted by Lou Reed and John Cale take rock ‘n’ roll further by singing about sex and drugs in poetically frank ways, they pushed music forward by taking it backwards. They could play a single droning chord for a seven-minute song and yet make it the most captivating and hypnotic piece of music you’ve heard. Over the years, the music and wide-ranging influence of The Velvet Underground has been studied and documented, but never quite in the way that the great Todd Haynes does in his masterful new rock-doc The Velvet Underground. There has rarely been such a perfect match of filmmaker and subject, as Haynes isn’t so much interested in creating a feel-good narrative about his favorite band but an unflinching portrait that’s willing to alienate audiences by simply being different.

The reality is that most rock ‘n’ roll documentaries are full of blowhards bloviating about a record they listened to in middle school. Todd Haynes isn’t interested in that. Instead, he uses The Velvet Underground to dive into what made this band so unique. Employing a wealth of archival footage meshed with new interviews and archival audio, Haynes presents an origin story for the band’s two most prominent members, Lou Reed and John Cale. Beyond simply getting into the biographical details as a means to understand their later artistic genius, the film actually documents the musical journey of Reed and Cale. The Velvet Underground doesn’t lecture its audience on how this band came to be, it presents all the pieces in musical mosaic that illustrates the evolution of these artists. Using old demo tapes, Lou Reed’s poetry from college, and John Cale’s own musical experimentation to present all the pieces that would coalesce into one of the most influential bands in history.

The documentary traces how a disaffected New Yorker and odd musician from Wales came to be collaborators, and how they were soon joined by drummer Moe Tucker and guitarist Sterling Morrison. As soon as The Velvet Underground formed, they were soon enmeshed within the art scene that was overseen by the legendary pop artist Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol would become the band’s manager and have them tour with his multimedia art show called Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol produced the band’s first album, designed the cover art, and soon had them collaborate with Nico, a German model and singer. The documentary pulls you into the world that Warhol had created with interviews with Warhol ingénues Mary Woronov and Amy Tabuin – both of whom don’t commit hagiography when discussing life in Warhol’s Factory.

Soon, Lou Reed became dissatisfied with living under the umbrella of Warhol and The Factory, firing the artist as the band’s manager and moving on to their next phase of music. This will soon emerge as a pattern for Reed’s artistic ambition and personal difficultness. It’s not too long after the band records their second album that Reed’s dissatisfaction with his one-time partner John Cale sours, and Cale leaves the band to move onto a successful producing and solo career. Cale was replaced by Doug Yule and the band would record two more albums before Lou Reed quit the band. Yule became the band’s front man in its final years, and The Velvet Underground merely faded away.

The first hour of The Velvet Underground is really interested in the taxonomy of the band, tracing their inspirations and influences. The second half focuses on the band’s rise and fall. There’s plenty of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in the story of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, but Haynes doesn’t use these details to sensationalize the story. Instead he uses these aspects as pieces of a puzzle, trying to examine how this singular force of music came to be. It also doesn’t hide the rough edges of its subjects, especially Lou Reed’s prickliness as a collaborator.

The documentary does feature a number of interviews, but Haynes isn’t bringing in people who were simply influenced by the Velvets, but interviews people who were actually there. Noted Warhol admirer John Waters recalls his experience seeing the Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows. The best of the interview subjects is Jonathan Richman, a noted admirer of the band but he gives impassioned recollections of first hearing the band and then the friendship he was able to strike up with members of the band. Richman recalls how Sterling Morrison taught him guitar, and his band The Modern Lovers’ debut record would be produced by John Cale. It presents a deep personal connection to the music and its players, but not in the generic rock-doc sense of someone explaining why they believe this music is great. Richman’s enthusiasm for the Velvets hasn’t waned a bit 50 years and his passion genuinely infectious.

What make The Velvet Underground such a perfect pairing of filmmaker and subject is the way in which Todd Haynes’ artistic flourishes reflect the band. The film is unafraid to be abstract and avant garde at times, eschewing convention. Like The Velvet Undergound, this documentary isn’t concerned with being overly commercial. It’s not afraid to be off-putting at times. But this is portrait that is uncompromising in its artistic integrity, presented with visual verve and narrative honesty. The Velvet Underground is one of the greatest band ever assembled, and their enigmatic sound and unconventional biographies are finally brought to the screen in the definitive documentary of a band that pushed the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll and changed what music could be. Haynes’ film is a collision of the elements that made The Velvet Undergrond great and the result is a great documentary unlike the other rock-docs out there.

The Velvet Underground opens in select theaters and Apple TV+ on October 15, 2021.

The Velvet Underground
  • Overall Score
5

Summary

One of the most influential bands ever gets a documentary that perfectly reflects their art in Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground, which eschews the conventions of the rock documentary in favor an artistic exploration of the personalities and work of iconic rock band.

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