The documentary “The Velvet Underground” is a moving tribute to a unique group
The Velvet Underground has a heritage like few other bands. Although it has been over 50 years since their debut album, they remain one of the most popular and influential alternative music groups and have dedicated fans young and old. They are in a way a symbol of art and the avant-garde, and their music still resonates today.
October 2021 by Todd Haynes documentary about the band, simply titled “The Velvet Underground,” received an unusual amount of preemptive hype for a documentary. To promote the film, a compilation of covers of The Velvet Underground’s self-titled debut album was released in late September.
Entitled “I will be your mirror”After haunting love song Performed on Nico’s original album, the cover album featured many artists who are legends in their own right, such as Iggy Pop and renowned alternative musicians such as St. Vincent and King Princess. This touching ode to the groundbreaking album was enough to get many, including myself, excited about Haynes’ documentary.
I was blown away by Haynes’ love letter to the avant-garde, New York, Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the movie. Haynes has made a name for himself with unique films like “Carole” and “Poison, so I had high hopes for this documentary. However, as a longtime Velvet Underground fan, I felt that the band’s story and music had been overemphasized, so I was worried that the film would fall into the pretentious analysis that often dominates the conversation about the group.
So with those things in mind, I went to see the movie and was blown away by Haynes’ love letter to the avant-garde, New York, Andy Warhol, and the Velvet Underground.
The film opens with a clip from a 1960s talk show discussing the 6-hour piano performance by band member John Cale in which he played the same track over and over. The animators found this odd and laughable – a sentiment that would be repeated often in the film.
The film makes sure to show that The Velvet Underground was unlike anything else. Haynes’ chosen excerpts from the songs include some of singer and guitarist Lou Reed’s darkest and most shocking lyrics, from songs like “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs.”
The focus on the group’s uniqueness is most apparent in the segment which covers their time as “superstars” of Warhol, the artist’s name for his subjects and collaborators. This is where the film is at its best – it uses footage salvaged from Warhol’s studio, The Factory, and stills from Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the multimedia performance of Warhol in which the Velvet Underground starred, which gives the audience a glimpse of the weird and star of Warhol. – studded world. The eccentric performers who surrounded Warhol form a dynamic cast of characters in this part of the story.
Many surviving members of this circle are interviewed in the film. Cale and Maureen Tucker, the only two original members of the group who survived, lent many heartfelt and hilarious anecdotes to Haynes, as well as to various friends and relatives. Reed’s sister opens up about their family and tearfully recounts her brother’s struggles with mental health and addiction. Warhol superstar Mary Woronov recounts her experience working with the band and gives a hilarious picture of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable tour across America.
The film left me nostalgic and inspired.
Woronov and Tucker seem to particularly poke fun at the noble, bohemian style of the group at this time, while also talking seriously about the artistic genius of the music. Jonathan Richman of The Modern Lovers also talks about the importance of the band to him – he claimed to have seen them perform about 60 times. This sincerity is what saves the documentary from arrogance.
After Reed fires Warhol, the documentary falls somewhat flat. There isn’t as much material to work with, as the band hasn’t had commercial success or worked with the Warhol crowd. After Cale leaves the group, the documentary is clearly coming to an end, even though the group has performed without him for many years.
Without Warhol’s eccentricity or Cale’s experimentalism, the documentary loses its central message. He regains his footing at the end in his representation of the group’s heritage. Haynes shows how the Velvet Underground paved the way for generations of pop, rock and alternative musicians in a rhythmic sequence of images on a frenzied guitar.
The film left me nostalgic and inspired. Haynes’ careful direction demonstrated the group’s pioneering genius but also retained a lightness that made the film incredibly fun to watch. It’s not so much a full-fledged Velvet Underground story as a demonstration of the love people have for them.