As a young man starting college, director Todd Haynes immediately fell in love with the Velvet Underground – the group that famous musician Brian Eno said didn’t sell a lot of records, but everyone who bought one. went to found a group.
It sounds like the story of a great fictional musical film: In the midst of the hippie era of flower power, a rock band emerges from the avant-garde New York art scene with the opposite ethos, clothed black with an outsider vibe, singing about drugs and lousy sex. This group of unlikely personalities and unwieldy talents collaborate with Andy Warhol on daring shows that blend music, visual arts and performance – a unique mix that brings little commercial success. But the group will be considered one of the most influential in rock history.
“The Velvet Underground,” Haynes’ wonderfully idiosyncratic and brilliantly constructed rock documentary – or rockumentary? – just tell this story. And that’s true.
Unless you are, like Haynes, a die-hard fan of the band that launched Lou Reed’s career and directed by Warhol, you might be surprised that some people refer to them in the same breath as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. But such is the esteem in which the Velvet Underground is held by many, who point to its influence on punk and other styles – even though it lasted about six years before the mercurial Reed left in 1970, and never achieved true mainstream success.
No matter how familiar you are, Haynes’ doc – the first for this accomplished director – is so stylistically compelling that what you know doesn’t really matter.
Its aim isn’t simply to tell the story of the Velvet Underground, through interviews and a surprisingly large collection of archival material (all shot before the early 1970s), including generous clips from films by avant-garde. He seems, in his idiosyncratic, non-linear style, trying to create the documentary version of a Velvet Underground show.
More importantly, Haynes uses a split screen technique for practically every two hours, a far more than technical effect. It is as if one point of view would never suffice; there’s always another, even if it’s just a photo of a thoughtful Reed, implicitly casting skepticism about what someone is saying. Or by munching on a Hershey’s chocolate bar.
And we’re not just talking about two screens. At the points there are 12 screens telling the story, combinations of still and moving images. The spirit seems aligned with those multimedia shows of the mid-60s, where Warhol projected his dreamlike images onto the screen while the Velvets performed and an eclectic audience danced (even Rudolf Nureyev.)
Haynes’ dazzling visuals are based on interviews with the two living members of the group – most often John Cale, the Welsh and classically trained violist who formed a powerful partnership with Long Island-born Reed. The other is drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker, who has a great line to describe how the Velvets diverged from hippie culture: Peace and love? âWe hated it. Be realistic,â she said disdainfully.
A man who could not be interviewed: Reed himself, who died in 2013 after a long solo career. Haynes has apparently put together all the audio clips and stock footage he can, and is able to capture the dangerous energy of a young Reed – someone who, rather than put on a show he didn’t have not want to do, smashed his fist in a window pane.
Also gone, of course, Warhol, who died in 1987 and appears in quick clips, and Nico – the German singer whose blonde looks and stage presence helped the band secure their first recording contract.
Haynes started in the early ’60s when the band didn’t have a name or sound yet, playing with so little success, says Reed, that “we had to change a lot of names because nobody was going to hire us.” .
But, we learn, Reed knew what he wanted: “I want to be rich and I want to be a rock star.”
The film traces the history of the group from its founding to their 1967 debut album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, their downtown shows, their tours, a stint on the west coast, the second album “White Love / White Heat âand the departure of Nico. “She was a wanderer,” Cale said.
The capricious Reed dismisses Warhol, then forces Cale out. âI didn’t know how to make her happy,â Cale said. “You tried to be nice, he would hate you even more.
Finally, Reed himself walks away.
âWe weren’t far from what he wanted us to achieve,â says Tucker. “It was ‘Shit, when is this going to happen?'”
But they had an impact. Perhaps the best line comes from Danny Fields, music director and publicist. “They had shone so brightly that no space could contain such an amount of light,” he said. “You need physics to describe this tape in its prime.”
“The Velvet Underground”, an Apple TV + release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for language, sexual content, nudity, and certain drug-related content.” Duration: 121 minutes. Three out of four stars.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Children under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.