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REVIEW – “The Velvet Underground”: Musical Culture Study Goes Full Fever Dream

Was it almost like a dream, New York in the mid-60s? An iconoclastic hub for cultural re-evolution, where music found a greater harmonic purpose? That might just be how Todd Haynes (Carol) perceived it in his film essay on The Velvet Underground. Were they just a band, or propagators of a social movement born out of the East Coast? And were they true to this world in their time? Haynes poses some very deep, philosophical answers to these questions, and to the concept of what a straightforward music documentary ought to be. It is anything but, the songs make that idea clear as a bell.

The Velvets were a constantly evolving rock band, their existence starting as far back as 1964, between mutual friends Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison. Each member bringing in their own unique influence and solo experience to the table, ranging from collaborations with Bernstein and John Cage to menial work in a low-budget record label. The trio were just college kids surviving the big city; their instincts fell to creating music for themselves, music for the mixed-up world they were thrust into. The results were experimental, influential, and woven deep into the illegal thread count tapestry of both classic and modern rock and roll. Anyone who goes into this film anticipating a deep-diving look into this band’s history, not unlike what Edgar Wright triumphed in earlier this year with The Sparks Brothers, should prepare for more dizzying highs (and lows).

Haynes doesn’t waste the prevalent opportunity to encapsulate what myriad emotions one confronts in the atmosphere of, let’s say, a live concert in a small club, or a moving image piece in a museum exhibition. Whether it’s through the flow of archival footage or interviews of varying age with Cale, Morrison, Reed, Angus MacLise, extraordinaire archivist Jonas Meklas, and others instrumental to the Underground’s festering, it’s just different. Different in a manner unexpected, through means familiar but otherwise not quite arranged as he does. It can’t be straightforward, knowing the band always tended to wobble. Through their early starts, affiliations with art maven Andy Warhol, and their collaboration with German female singer Nico, those still alive (or not) share everything, never overlooking. Their faces alone often tell enough, riddled with an equal sense of pride and regret.

The mix of elements, glossed with the faded flicker of old school film cameras and high-quality still photographs, shows both sides of the band’s accidental success. Dual ends of a shaky tableau, rolling with endless shockwaves as they played not for commercialism but for that of their art. Their joint confidence drives Haynes’ motive to veer off, twist, and tangle off a linear path; kudos to co-editors Alfonso Goncalves and Adam Kurnitz for playing one step ahead of Todd’s brain. We’d shift too far off the road were it not for the foresight of Cale’s effervescent baritone. Much like his voice on a record, his accounts keep the plight grounded enough to maintain even the thinnest shred of educational diction.

If this film were like a field trip to a music club, Cale would be the instructor moving things along and pushing the study guide. One where the obvious first question would be “what’s the drone of western civilization?” The answer played as the harmonic backbone for many of VU’s first songs, a calming, inconspicuous 60-cycle hum, a quiet tone distinguished from a noisy, industrial world. His thoughts alone are enough to slice through the likely bends or tears to give Haynes’ admiration a firm cohesiveness. And in turn, speak not just to the band’s history, but the role they played in certainly shaping 60s New York from uptight to upbeat and loose at the neck collars. As the band so rightly proclaimed, “We are the culture!”

They were cogs in that machine fueling the below-surface multimedia scene in that decade, fueled by Warhol’s investments, his work in The Factory, a free-for-all studio space. And the projects easy to consume his mind, and fill the space, with Cale and company following along. Haynes isn’t at all shy to encapsulate Warhol’s mindset as well, mixing in old clips as those involved speak, new interviews shot with a mimicked variant of his avant-garde ideology, ensuring a consistent, poised enveloping of bright lights and bombastic sound, and a small twinge of incense.

It was quite a lot to try to absorb in the span of a mere two hours, the vivid color spectrum leaving me a tad overwhelmed by the end. It might’ve helped to be a little more familiar with the Velvets’ vast body of work, offshoots included. Compared to Sparks, this rock music diatribe bears slightly less accessibility and requires more prerequisites to fully appreciate the fine details Haynes pushes for. I felt less prepared going in so cold on The Velvet Underground, so it’s possible that affected the enjoyment factor.

Nevertheless, its arthouse antics do plenty to further resume what’s been one of the most compelling cinematic trends in 2021, bringing lesser-discussed musical acts a little closer into the mainstream with a hard shove and a captive visual palette. For those two hours, it left me mesmerized, in both lyrical and eye-catching aesthetics. And even without being in the best mindset to take it in, it’s the kind of documentary that can be the most effective time capsule, as well as a mood-alterer. Prepare responsibly. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)

The Velvet Underground is in select theaters and streaming on Apple TV+ this weekend, special three-day engagement at Seattle’s SIFF Cinema Egyptian October 17-19; rated R for language, sexual content, nudity, and some drug material; 121 minutes.