When it comes to seminal bands in music, The Velvet Underground will be right up at the top. The legendary avant-garde rockers are the subject of Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Carol ) debut documentary feature. Which has been streaming on Apple TV+, now on The Criterion Collection.
For a band back in it’s hey day of the 1960’s that didn’t sell many records, those who did buy started a band. Brian Eno famously once quoted some of those words. Selling records doesn’t always bring success. It’s what that experience that immerses you, inspires you and the great sounds that leaves that everlasting impact. The Velvet Underground ticked all those boxes and over the decades they got the appreciation they truly deserved.
Like many music scenes over the years, it’s not just about the sounds, it’s the culture too. For this band and Lou Reed especially the city you come from can be instrumental. For Reed it was New York City the birthplace and epicentre to many bands and pop cultures that came with that music. The Velvets were born in the decade of experimentation, the 1960’s.
It takes two to tango and anyone knows Lou Reed maybe Ying, John Cale was the bands Yang. Their creativity propelled the band to new levels which also saw Andy Warhol come onboard as their manager. Music and art the popular media of protest, the media of rebellion, The Velvets rode that wave, one that brought them very little commercial success, pioneering the city’s underground rock scene.
Haynes film, The Velvet Underground tells the story of a group of musicians marginalised. Who came together to redefine rock and roll first under the wing of Andy Warhol. Delivering a raw sound that would inspire many musicians some we would also go onto call legends. Pushing the boat out on experimentation stirring the bees nest of sounds to lay the foundations for many other musical genres.
Delving into the early days of the band who named themselves after Michael Leigh’s 1963 book. Warhol’s The Factory was the perfecting setting for the band to live the pages of that book (group sex, orgies and sadomasochism, etc…) or simply rebel against society.
Protest for The Velvets wasn’t so much the social issues of the time, it was more towards the likes of the Hippy movement. They where more interested in singing about about drugs, sexual deviancy , prostitution, Sadomasochism, to name a few. Frank Zappa and the Mother Of Invention was the so called musical ‘alternative’ , Reed was no fan of them. If rumours were true Zappa actually liked The Velvets.
Lou Reed’s gave the band the rock edge as well something truly poetic. John Cale brought the experimental element, Warhol introduced them to the right people, the right audience. He gave them Nico, setting in motion the band’s dream pop sensibilities.
Like many great band their lifespan is short. Reed knew The Velvets where more than The Factory’s house band which saw him fire Warhol. What did he actually do behind the scenes? Very little according to Reed, the man himself would leave the band several years later. Was the end nigh for the band when Cale left?
The Velvet Underground is Todd Haynes is a mesmerising tribute. The director is a fanboy, he grew up loving this band and that passion shines through. Will the documentary suffice similar passionate fans like the director? New fans and those that know very little about the band will enjoy this immensely. Haynes is like that great friend letting you hear the band for the first time, worshipping John Cale especially.
The film doesn’t take the usual conventional approach. Adapting that trademark minimal avant garde film-making style from the Factory. With split screens, interviews (new and archival), a little footage and photographs, artwork. Haynes doesn’t purely focus on the music as The Velvet Underground was more about than the music. They were the outsiders in rock and roll whose imprint on the genre that could easily be bigger, more influential than the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd.
The extras on this release include a couple of Avant Garde films that are sampled throughout the documentary. A nice teaser for film students in the experimentation in film-making during the decade. The audio commentary featuring Haynes and editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz. This is worth a listen to as it explains the visual style of the film. As for that visual aesthetic, it’s sharp, clear though some of the archival footage is a little hard to appreciate fully. That is no fault of film-makers. The audio is also on top form.
Movie ★★★★ Extras ★★★★ Audio & Video ★★★★
Documentary, Music | USA, 2021 | 15 | Blu-ray | 26th December 2022 | Criterion Collection / Sony Pictures Releasing HE | Dir.Todd Haynes | John Cale, Mary Woronov, Amy Taubin, Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman
– New 4K digital master, approved by director Todd Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman, with Dolby Atmos soundtrack
- Audio commentary featuring Haynes and editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz
- Outtakes of interviews shot for the film with musicians John Cale, Jonathan Richman, and Maureen Tucker; filmmaker Jonas Mekas; and actor Mary Woronov
- Conversation from 2021 among Haynes, Cale, and Tucker
- Complete versions of some of the avant-garde films excerpted in the movie, including Piero Heliczer’s Venus in Furs (1965)
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Optional annotated subtitle track that identifies the avant-garde films seen in the movie
PLUS: A 2021 essay by critic Greil Marcus