With snappy editing and great insight on its background, Todd Haynes makes you listen carefully and appreciate The Velvet Underground’s style, techniques, and artistry more– engaging you with the film whether you are a fan of the band or not.
To give a brief introduction on who The Velvet Underground are, we need to start in 1964. They were formed by bandmates Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Angus MacLise (who was replaced a year later by Moe Tucker). Their central genre is rock, but they blended and mashed many other ones in their music instrumentations and concoctions; avant-garde, garage-rock, proto-punk, art rock, psychedelic rock, you name it. Although they weren’t a massive success at the start, as the avant-garde movement in the mid to late 60s was starting to garner some traction, they are now considered one of the most influential rock groups of all time.
Of course, most people know that they started thanks to the pop-art subcultures and junctions with Andy Warhol and Nico, who lent vocals on their self-titled record The Velvet Underground & Nico. However, it dives deeper into what made them unique, how they forged their iconic and resplendent sound with tons of detailed and acute information. Haynes manages to attach archival footage with discussions, interviews, or situations concomitantly with a split-screen remedy. Using the techniques and similar fervid creativity that the VU used in their music, he formulates an exciting trip to the early 60s wave of the New York pre-punk society.
“That weirdness shouldn’t have existed in this space,” one interviewer remarked regarding their methodology and poetry. It comes with the territory; at a time of great experimentation musically, The Velvet Underground never settled down to create the same work as everybody else on the underground rock east coast scene, like The Stooges, MC5, or the New York Dolls. There are ways in which it could have delved deeper into some of the member’s backstories, like Reed’s love life which inspired many records; nevertheless, since this doc focuses mainly on the music and its modus operandi, those themes aren’t implemented.
“Life is just to die, but anyone who ever had a heart, they wouldn’t turn around and break it,” as Reed sings in the song “Sweet Jane.” On the other hand, sadness and grief lurk since most of the members have passed away (Nico, Reed, Morrison), and their pasts before joining the group are upsetting. Another minor problem is the issue with Frank Zappa and the disrespect towards him. Of course, we know that Reed and Zappa hated each other, and their debacles towards the flower-power hippies versus the proto-punk retrospective are infamous. Still, Zappa wasn’t part of either of those movements — he was totally against it. Oddly enough, this was left in the documentary since his discography is uncategorizable, and a large chunk of his work is based on free-form improvisation.
This documentary isn’t a “play the greatest hits” or “you just had to be there” scenario, which is a route many docs take that annoys me because they aren’t dwelling on why we, as an audience, should care about your take on the topic. Instead, Todd Haynes gives a lesson on The Velvet Underground’s musical prowess rather than simplifying why he loves the band. I’m not the biggest fan of the band; I enjoy Lou Reed’s solo work more. Still, it achieves at getting my attention and gives their records a second, deeper listen to notice all the little trinkets and stylistic repertoire that they bring.