The new film by Todd Haynes rolls out a unique approach in documenting New York’s iconic and influential Velvet Underground. The Local Spins review by John Serba.
THE MOVIE: ‘The Velvet Underground’
LOCAL SPINS SCORE: 3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPAA RATING: R for language, sexual content, nudity, drug material
DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes
RUN TIME: 121 minutes
SEE IT: In select theaters (Celebration Cinema North); streaming on Apple TV+
SCROLL DOWN FOR MOVIE TRAILER
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One of the conclusive assertions we hear as Todd Haynes’ documentary “The Velvet Underground” ends is, “You need physics to explain the band at its height.”
Really? Physics? Yes.
John Cale, bassist and founding member of The Velvet Underground, explained it earlier in the film, saying the band tuned itself to “the 60-cycle hum of the refrigerator,” because it was the “hum of civilization” and, as they’d later learn, the alpha rhythm of the sleeping brain.
Fascinating. And brilliant, if we take his word for it, and I guess we should.
It makes sense, since the band’s aesthetic is indelibly, and maybe terrifyingly, urban. And within the cold concrete of New York City was a human pulse, the anti-boho art collectives of the 1960s, groups of painters, musicians, filmmakers and writers who indulged in experimentalism for its own sake.
Considering the context, it’s no surprise that “The Velvet Underground” indulges the scene’s high-concept terminology: “It’s all about extended time,” says one commentator. They “shined so brightly, there was no way that light could be contained,” goes another. They’d improvise so performances were “subconscious.” They’re described as “R&B meets Wagner.” The music “establishes a psychological state,” and I’ll translate that as meaning it’s hypnotic and transporting.
Don’t expect Haynes to hold the spoon and feed you a “Behind the Music” narrative. No, the auteur behind highly unconventional Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There” and David Bowie-inspired glam-rock drama “Velvet Goldmine,” opens “The Velvet Underground” with a spattering of old news clips and grainy footage — most notably Cale’s appearance on the goofy TV game show “I’ve Got a Secret” — setting up the story of a band that defied everything that came before it, creatively and culturally, and inspired nearly everything that came after it in American underground music.
Haynes continues in this fashion for two hours, using visual cues, often on split screens, to give contextual hints, foregoing subtitles and other documentary cliches. Fifteen minutes go by before we see a talking head; footage is almost exclusively archival; the only Velvet Underground live performance we see is during the end credits; there is no gauzy, triumphant footage of the band’s brief mid-’90s reunion or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
The film shows no desire to meet casual viewers halfway. By the time Haynes reaches the story of the band’s first tour, when interviewees explain how Velvet Underground concerts tended to drive half the audience out of the venue, it’s fair to speculate that half the viewers of this documentary will have turned it off.
So consider the spirit of the band captured.
A RESTLESS VISUAL STYLE DEPICTING A WILDLY INFLUENTIAL BAND
Haynes’ restless visual style represents a narrative that does its duty in an unconventional fashion, an easy parallel to how the Velvet Underground’s droning sounds, bleak beat-poet lyrics and relentless artistic exploration provided skin and muscle to the skeleton of singer/guitarist Lou Reed’s elemental rock ‘n’ roll songwriting.
“The Velvet Underground” gives introductory background on core collaborators Reed and Cale, details their meeting — the former was raw volatile, and the latter comes off as quiet and musically accomplished — and works its way through the group’s six most productive years, 1964-70. It diligently and compellingly works through the band’s collaborations with Andy Warhol and singer/actress Nico, Cale’s departure and the band’s disintegration when it failed to meet Reed’s desired level of commercial success.
We see Cale and drummer Moe Tucker; we only hear Reed and guitarist Sterling Morrison’s voices, both of whom have passed. Friends, contemporaries, relatives and industry types are interviewed; you’ll recognize John Waters, Jackson Browne and Jonathan Richman. In fact, you’ll be grateful for Richman, who cuts the pretension by describing the Velvet Underground’s appeal in enthusiastic and relatable terms.
Also entertaining are descriptions of the band’s black-cloud arrival on the West Coast — inspiring a negative review by none other than Cher herself — and Tucker’s amusingly virulent dismissal of the peace-and-love hippie movement.
So the film isn’t wholly challenging, only mostly so, and definitely less so for aficionados who still drop the hi-fi needle on their copy of “The Velvet Underground and Nico.”
Those folks also will intuit the subtext, hearing the band’s influence on punk and New Wave and noise rock and indie rock and lo-fi and Nick Cave and Swans and Sonic Youth and Joy Division and U2 and Talking Heads and Sunn 0))), and, and, and.
The Velvet Underground inspired a cottage industry of musical artists who popped in the ’70s and ’80s and even more so in the ’90s. Wikipedia will give you the complete dry story of the band, but this is the slippery-wet version, the one that aims for the nebulous heart of a true artistic movement, delivering the vibe, the sauce, the juice, the air, the atmosphere.
VIDEO: “The Velvet Underground” (Official Trailer)
John Serba is a veteran film and rock critic, formerly of MLive.com and The Grand Rapids Press, and an “unapologetic metalhead.”
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