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The Velvet Underground ★★★★★

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Director: Todd Haynes

Features: Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Ann Tucker, Sterling Morrison, Nico, Doug Yule and Andy Warhol

Release: October 15, 2021 (Apple TV+)

Todd Haynes has dramatized musical icons of the ’60s but in an interestingly fictional manner in I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine. Yet in The Velvet Underground, his accuracy to the story of his favourite band’s creation/disillusionment and the art scene that facilitated it is astonishing in the editing’s transportability into the social scene, as well as providing a lens into the members themselves. The Velvet Underground is a revelatory music documentary that does what many aspire for but often fall short of: film form emulating, or adapting, the lyrical and sonic elements of music. Beyond this, Haynes’ vision is so cohesively and editorially transfixing in its intertextual collage of film (the testimonials and archive footage are on celluloid), visual art and music, in a similarly trailblazing manner as the titular band.

The Velvet Underground depicts the bands formation in the mid-1960s New York as they all emigrated to the city in search of fame or creative collaboration and the exploration of the formal elements of music. Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Ann Tucker, and Sterling Morrison became acquainted through the art scene in New York as they played music around the city and recognized each other’s uniqueness of the comprehension of tonality and drones within music. Andy Warhol eventually noticed them, who subsequently took them under his tutelage and rebranded them as The Velvet Underground. Eventually, Nico and Doug Jones are folded in, the former as a result of artistic intervention from Warhol and the latter a result of Cale’s departure. The documentary details the bands rise and fall, but Haynes’ mastery over editing links the rise and fall to both be born out of the same causation: aspiration to break new ground and out of social norms.

The film’s song selection from the band’s discography is typically fantastic, and the visual style beyond the editing is mesmerizing, the triptych split screen, flashes of purples, yellows and greens, and the montage of visual patterns and stage performances emulating the very spirit of Warhol’s production of the group as an art installation. Haynes is smart to focus on the core group, providing the necessary background on Warhol and Nico, without delving too much into their stories, aware that those would make suitable subjects for a film in their own right. Because of this, the insight into Lou, Maureen, John and Sterling is simply exquisite and feels relatable as well as tragic at times, bittersweet at others. 

Haynes has made a film that is both deeply personal to the feelings of each band member, and yet broad in its discussion on several social issues that in the memories the film is unearthing for its subjects, the band’s relation to the art scene that created them becomes fascinatingly resistant to disentanglement with the memories of their success. Haynes’ portrays this same scene and the breeding of masculinity that becomes toxic within it as what eventually separates the group and what created them.

The Velvet Underground movie image

The film smartly and elegantly employs The Velvet Underground’s Heroin throughout the film as a leitmotif. The brutally honest lyrics on Reed’s enjoyment of the very same drug beautifully ties together the films’ themes of obsession spiralling into a love-hate relationship with the music, with the society, and with each other, as well as being a perfect showcase for just how transmedia the band was, and how Reed’s lyricism gave the music emotional grounding. Sonically, the song mimics the rush that Heroin gives, and the following push and pull of getting that next hit, which links to the films presentation of the band trying to work with conflicting personalities within and without. Haynes’ has positioned Heroin as the bands defining song, emulating the emotional, creative, and personal exhaustion of the creative process, while also linking the sickness of drug addiction to the burden of the artist. The song is the lifeblood of the film insofar as it provides a tentative tissue to the idiosyncratic yet perfectly calibrated editing.

The use of testimonials and voice over from deceased members in conjunction with a split-screen effect that incorporates photography and videography of the band as shot by Warhol is what creates the above effect, blurring the line between past and present, memory and truth.  From this, Haynes brilliantly incorporates the moving portraits of each band member during the first hour of the film as he establishes each as an individual, the 16mm footage peering back at the audience, watching us watch their memories played out. Our relationship with each band member is thus formed from a base human connection of sight, and recognition that we as an audience exist as the lifeblood to what all true artists create, and the film, similar to the band, wants to relate that our connection to art is our connection to one another.

Haynes’ only and slight blunder here is the commenting on the depiction of Lou Reed’s mental state and drug use in media in the last 50 years, but never really follows through on this metatextual element, the film either perpetuating that image of Reed, or counteracting it, although we, nor Haynes, really knows which. Regardless, The Velvet Underground is an ode to the creative spirit, especially since the band was an intersection of film, music and visual art as the editing of the film replicates this transmedia approach. Haynes has beautifully connected the eclectic, strange yet beautiful, multicultural, but sexist art scene of 1960s New York to the lost souls of The Velvet Underground.

Ryan Collins, Author at Movie Marker

The Velvet Underground (2021) – IMDb

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