‘The Velvet Underground’ Is a Trippy, Sexy, Must-See Rock Doc

The Velvet Underground, Todd Haynes’ non-fiction portrait of the avant-garde rock titans, isn’t as overtly unconventional as I’m Not There, his 2007 tackle Bob Dylan’s life that featured quite a few actors enjoying fictionalized variations on the singer-songwriter. Nonetheless, there’s bracing uniqueness to the director’s newest, which employs a placing formal model to recount the origins, glory days, and implosion of one of many 20th century’s most ahead-of-their-time musical acts, whose grungy beat-poetry lyrics, extreme sonic experimentation, and non-conformist angle paved the way in which for innumerable subsequent bands (and helped encourage Haynes’ personal Velvet Goldmine). Wielding acquainted parts in thrillingly novel methods, Haynes crafts a documentary that doesn’t try for comprehensiveness and but feels, at coronary heart, just like the definitive model of their story.

Premiering on the New York Movie Pageant upfront of its October 15 bow in theaters and on Apple TV+, The Velvet Underground enlists the participation of neither critics nor outsiders; fairly, Haynes’s documentary is narrated by the band members themselves—guitarist and singer Lou Reed and guitarist Sterling Morrison in posthumous audio interviews, and bassist and violist John Cale and drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker in new chats—in addition to colleagues, collaborators and mates who had been alongside for the band’s rise to greatness. Effectively, okay, perhaps not rise, because the Velvet Underground solely achieved their legendary standing within the years following their 1970 breakup. However everybody concerned right here was part of the group’s magical (if comparatively short-lived) tenure, which took place as a consequence of a mix of excellent fortune, unlikely kinship, and an surroundings tailored for his or her model of spontaneous creativity.

In a Sixties New York Metropolis that had change into a gathering place for radical artists from around the globe, Lengthy Islander Reed and Welsh-born Cale discovered one another at 56 Ludlow Avenue, a Decrease East Facet haven for the burgeoning counterculture scene. Their partnership first resulted in a band referred to as the Primitives, which quickly morphed into the Velvet Underground, which in flip led them to Andy Warhol’s artwork collective, The Manufacturing unit. There, paired with German singer and mannequin Nico, they served because the de facto home band, finally spearheading Warhol’s wild Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia spectacular. In a milieu the place pushing boundaries and making industrial artwork had been equally vital, the Velvet Underground found a great house for his or her groundbreaking music, marked by Cale’s dissonant droning and off-the-beaten-path impulses (modeled after the work of La Monte Younger) and Reed’s tender melodies and daring lyrics about homosexuality, transgender characters, orgiastic intercourse and medicines.

As Cale says in The Velvet Underground, the band’s trick was determining “how you can be elegant and how you can be brutal,” which completely sums up their landmark debut LP The Velvet Underground & Nico. Boasting Warhol cowl artwork (of a banana), the album was largely ignored upon its launch however has since come to be hailed as an revolutionary masterpiece, and Haynes conveys its energy by blasting lots of its roaring tunes over an incredible assortment of archival materials. Solely hardly ever depicting talking-head interviews, the movie opts for a daring collage-like construction during which outdated images and photographs of the band rehearsing, performing and dealing at The Manufacturing unit are introduced with out matching audio; as a substitute, they’re accompanied by narrated commentary from varied audio system, in addition to tracks from the band’s oeuvre. With a lot of that visible materials additionally introduced in split-screen trend or by way of hyper-kinetic montages, the impact of Haynes’ strategy is to create an immersive, borderline-dreamlike descent into the Velvet Underground’s world.

Removed from alienating, The Velvet Underground’s delicate disconnect between sound and picture feels immediately attuned to the band’s avant-garde music, surrounding us on all sides with completely different points of their artistry. Haynes relates key particulars from the band’s historical past however proves extra keen on imparting a way of the group’s idiosyncratic angle. Epitomized by their preliminary, iconic all-black outfits and matching sun shades, the Velvet Underground had been the decidedly abrasive and renegade antidote to the hippie-ish period during which they operated, and Moe amusingly makes clear how they felt concerning the flower-power interval when she states, “This love-peace crap—we hated that.” Confrontational and offended, and but additionally wounded and lyrical, they had been a band with one foot on the dirty avenue and the opposite in ethereal planes.

After an much more aggressively disharmonious sophomore effort (1968’s White Mild/White Warmth), Reed famously pressured his bandmates to decide on between him and Cale (they went with the previous), and whereas The Velvet Underground dutifully charts the group’s ensuing evolution with new bassist/singer Doug Xmas, the movie appears rather a lot much less involved with the again half of their catalog—1969’s self-titled The Velvet Underground and 1970’s swan tune Loaded—than of their seminal early output. That’s most likely to be anticipated, given the legacy of the group’s traditional line-up. Nonetheless, in mild of Haynes’ in-depth therapy of the Velvet Underground’s nascent phases, there’s one thing ever-so-slightly irritating concerning the abruptness with which he covers these later moments, particularly since The Velvet Underground and Loaded include a few of Reed’s best pop-rock tunes.

“Confrontational and offended, and but additionally wounded and lyrical, they had been a band with one foot on the dirty avenue and the opposite in ethereal planes.”

Nonetheless, as with one of the best music documentaries, The Velvet Underground not solely delivers anecdotes and live performance clips however captures the overarching spirit of its topic and the cultural stew from which it sprang. Simply as Reed and Cale had been immensely lucky to have discovered one another—their instincts and musical tastes clashing and meshing in a singular method—so too was the Velvet Underground fortunate to have developed a relationship with Warhol, who gave them the liberty and alternative to indulge their each pioneering, improvisatory whim. As Haynes’ movie underscores, The Velvet Underground & Nico would have undoubtedly been a far completely different document if Warhol hadn’t assumed the position of producer and, in doing so, shielded them from doubtlessly meddling voices. On the identical time, it celebrates Reed and Cale as distinctive visionaries, all whereas additionally exuding admiration for Nico, whose short-lived however memorable stint with the band illustrated her personal expertise and ambition.

Haynes finally skims by Reed and Cale’s solo careers and the band’s eventual reunions, as if to bequeath such subjects to future documentarians. From begin to end, his great The Velvet Underground maintains strict, loving, celebratory give attention to the band’s transient and good heyday—a revolutionary run to which Haynes pays fittingly ingenious tribute.

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