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THE VELVET UNDERGROUND Documentary Review

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND is a documentary film based on the band of the same name, directed and produced by Todd Haynes. The film had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on July 7, 2021, and it’s scheduled for release on Apple TV+ on October 15, 2021.

Probably most famed for their association with legendary pop artist Andy Warhol in the mid 1960s, The Velvet Underground made a name for themselves musically, doing what no other band had done, even if many of their initial efforts weren’t immediate breakthrough successes. Even after dissolving their partnership with Warhol, the group continued to make music despite inner turbulence, creative differences, and lineup changes. Over half a century later, the band, who had featured such names as Lou Reed, Nico, Sterling Morrison, John Cale, Doug Yule, and Maureen “Moe” Tucker, remains widely revered and influential as one of the greatest of all time, not to mention one of the most eccentric.

No matter who you are in this world, you’ve heard of The Velvet Underground. Maybe without even realizing it. Perhaps you’ve heard a song or two and not known who it was by. Maybe you heard WALK ON THE WILD SIDE by Lou Reed and went to learn about his band before he went solo. Perhaps you just randomly saw a painting of a banana by Andy Warhol and wondered what the story behind it was.

Todd Haynes’ film, simply entitled THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, looks back into the past, to an era when New York City was an epicenter of all things artistic, cultural, and experimental, where Andy Warhol was at the center of it all, and the soundtrack to this music scene was provided by Lou, John, and all the rest. The movie looks back at the early lives and the eventual union of these musicians, not to mention the (exploding plastic) inevitable implosion of it all, several years following the dissolving of their partnership with Warhol. The movie is packed with rare vintage footage and interviews, both audio and video, newly filmed interviews with surviving band members and associates, and even a few other cinema and music legends, including Jackson Browne and John Waters. It’s filled with information and never boring, even if there are few slight missteps and omissions along the way.

Anyone can make a documentary on a band, but it takes a good filmmaker to keep it interesting and to make it a worthwhile watch. THE VELVET UNDERGROUND succeeds in this regard thanks to director Todd Haynes’ efforts. While many music docs are newly-filmed interviews that are interspaced and rounded out with excerpts of vintage doc/performance footage, Haynes takes the opposite approach; the film is almost entirely vintage footage, usually done in a split-screen format, no doubt done to resemble a Warhol film and keep the audience’s attention. Cutaways to modern footage of the interviewees happen far less often than you’d expect, and this stylistic decision to keep the audience “in the period” proves to be the movie’s greatest strength. Even if you’re not already a fan of the group, the visuals alone will keep you interested, be it old home movies, Warhol-filmed footage, an art expo of sorts, or the band doing what they do best – performing on stage (though I have a feeling this movie may make a fan out of you If you’re not one yet!) If it were about any other band, or in the hands of a lesser director, the end result might feel gimmicky and contrived. But for a film about The Velvet Underground, this is surprisingly appropriate and effective.

The actual footage itself assembled, not to mention the surviving associates/band members/etc. assembled for this effort impress as well; it must have been a gargantuan effort to get everything and everyone together. Seeing everyone from the aged surviving Warhol associates and disciples to an aged (but still entertaining) Maureen Tucker is certainly worth the price of admission. The stories here are priceless, and while I don’t know for sure how well-known everything said here is, having it in one two-hour film was great for this rock and roll fan. From tales of gay clubs in NYC in the 1960s to Tucker’s disgusted reactions to meeting hippies on the West Coast for the first time, much of what’s seen here has to be seen to be believed. The film has been Rated R by the MPA, likely due to the explicit nature of some of the sexual content in a few of the pieces of footage assembled here, along with some harsh language. However, it’s all relevant, of the period, and appropriate to the story being told here.

I do have a few caveats with the otherwise excellent film, however. One of the biggest issues is the outright omission of certain people and information. Just scrolling down the Wikipedia page for the movie, I saw plenty of information about the band’s history not included here, including certain band members (mostly very early or very late in its life cycle) as well as some semi-reunions of sorts occurring in the years since the band’s initial disbandment. At one point in the movie we see that Reed and Cale basically hated each other to the point that it was a “he goes or I go” situation, yet near the end of the film we see a photo of an album they did together at a later date… and this isn’t described or explained at all. It also seems like the film tends to drag at times in its first half while at the same time bombarding the audience with too many people to keep track of; even me, a die-hard rock and roll fan, had a hard time keeping up with everyone. By the time we reach the part where the band begins releasing albums, things become borderline rushed. No one could fit the complete story of the band into a two-hour film, but I think Haynes has more-or-less done the best he can to tell this story in a relatively concise time frame. Still, you can’t help but wonder if another 10-15 minutes of running time might have made things flow a little smoother.

I love The Velvet Underground, the band, and THE VELVET UNDERGROUND by Todd Haynes, despite some minor flaws, is a solid piece of storytelling done in a stylistic and visually appealing manner resembling a Warhol film with a radically different approach befitting of how eccentric and wild a band they were. It’s definitely one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2021, a year that’s already given us plenty of appealing and entertaining rock docs. Strongly recommended!

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