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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Counterculture > Rock Music > Punk > Biography > The Velvet Underground (2021/Criterion Blu-ray)

The Velvet Underground (2021/Criterion Blu-ray)

Picture: A- Sound: B+ Extras: B+ Documentary Film: B+

Four grungy downtown musicians clad in black-leather and disaffection (one incongruously playing a viola), occasionally joined by a towering blonde European pop goddess, play fuzzy rock about buying heroin and tasting whips while experimental films play behind and dancers gyrate in front of them. In the gallery, out there somewhere beyond the tuned-in throng, is the most famous artist in America. He organized this happening. His films play on the screen, his Superstars dance on stage, and it's his band at the center of it all.

In conception, pedigree, execution, and memory the Velvet Underground - Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker in its original configuration - is maybe the most cinematic rock band of the 20th Century. The group existed, at least for a couple albums, at the intersection of the avant-garde, the underground, pop, Pop, and a healthy handful of isms. Andy Warhol, producer of the Velvets' first album and designer of its iconic banana cover, hovered over the Velvets like the Drella of his reputation. Nico wafted in, then out again just as suddenly. There's the psychodrama of the relationship between Reed and Cale, the magnetic poles who's creative and personality friction and dependency powered and stabilized the Velvets. And let's not forget the mythical place the group occupies in culture, from the apocryphal (its first album only sold 10,000 copies but everyone who bought one formed a band) to the actual (Reed is still, even in death, the cantankerous patron saint of the Lower East Side).

For all that, the Velvet Underground only released four albums and existed for less than a decade. (Five albums if you count Squeeze, released in 1973 without any of the core Velvets; the band's lifespan is even shorter if you believe it ceased to be when Cale was fired after the release of White Light/White Heat in 1968.) How do you contain in a documentary that kind of supernova and all the gravitational forces within and emitting out of it? Lou Reed, John Cale, Andy Warhol, New York in the '60s, postwar art - any one of those on their own can consume the larger narrative.

Todd Haynes accepted, and mostly wrangled, that challenge. His admirable 2021 film, The Velvet Underground, is likely the best Velvets documentary we'll ever see. Haynes expertly toggles between the intimate and the macro, giving those who were there - Cale, Tucker, Warhol Superstar Mary Woronov, among others - to take us inside the Velvets experience, be it at Warhol's Factory or at one of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable happenings or on the road, while allowing critics, like Amy Taubin, and those influenced by the band, like Jonathan Richman, space to contextualize what the band meant to listeners and the culture.

There's a Lou Reed-shaped hole here, though, owing to the fact that he died in 2013. But Haynes does his best to fill it with recollections from Reed's sister, pre-Velvets bandmates, and music industry professionals. This allows Haynes to bring in conversations about Reed's sexuality, influences, and songwriting genius, to say nothing of his insularity and authoritarian streak. He also includes archival audio and video to get Reed as much as possible into the documentary. It's all important, certainly, for the Velvet Underground narrative, but it's difficult to watch and not feel a kind of unfairness that, for the most part, others are speaking for Reed, one of America's most mercurial and individual rock stars.

Haynes makes up for it by leaning hard into Cale's story, particularly his avant-garde sensibility. Reed might have aspired to be a Dylan-esque rock star, but Cale, a classical violist and fervently anti-authority, aimed for something less mainstream and more, say, John Cage. When talking about the drone experiments he performed with La Monte Young and the Dream Syndicate, in their apartment at 54 Ludlow Street, Cale, deadpan, recalled, ''The most stable thing we could tune to was the 60-cycle hum of the refrigerator. The 60-cycle hum was to us the drone of western civilization.'' Suddenly, the fuzz of the first two Velvet Underground albums comes into total clarity.

(Side note, in case anyone wonders why New York has ceased to be a beacon for a certain kind of artist: 54 Ludlow Street was an avant-garde beacon for musicians, poets, and filmmakers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in part because rent was $25.44 a month. Recently, a one bedroom went for $3,300-$3,800 a month.)

The first bit of The Velvet Underground is concerned with establishing the distinct, oppositional characters of Reed and Cale, two alpha types who ultimately connected and collaborated because they saw in the other what they needed to succeed (Reed a virtuosic artist, Cale a skilled lyricist). It's also what, ultimately, led to their schism after the release of White Light/White Heat. That tension fueled the best of the Velvet Underground, and once it was removed the music took a turn toward straight rock.

Interestingly, it's at this point in the film - about 90 minutes into its two-hour runtime - where it, too, straightens out. Haynes covers about 50 years in the last 20 minutes of the documentary, with a one-minute montage tracking the output of every Velvet (including Nico and Doug Yule, who replaced Cale) from the breakup to the present. The preceding hour and a half, on the other hand, focuses on, essentially, 20 years. It's not only narrative whiplash, it's creatively disappointing.

For the first two-thirds of The Velvet Underground, Haynes is concerned with the cultural milieu the band emerged from as much as the band itself. The director of Velvet Goldmine, I'm Not There, and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter is uniquely equipped to braid together so many of threads of the Velvets' story that the doc, while overarchingly a narrative of its birth, life, and death, is also a kind of series of capsule histories of experimental filmmaking, the New American Cinema, and first-wave postwar avant-garde art.

No one is more important to that experience than Jonas Mekas, filmmaker/critic/patron saint of the underground, the one who introduced Warhol to filmmaking and encouraged his efforts and a singular force in establishing a space for experimental film in the U.S. Mekas is as important to the first third of the documentary, at least, as Reed and Cale because the world Mekas inhabited and transformed is in the Velvets' genetic code. (Indeed, Haynes dedicates the film to Mekas, who died before it was completed.)

To make that case, Haynes gives a lot of attention to a lot of cinema artists. By my count, there are no less than 31 accounted for in The Velvet Underground via clips of their work. This includes Mekas and Warhol; household names like Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Ken Jacobs, and Ron Rice; pioneers like Oskar Fischinger and Stan VanDerBeek; and new-to-me names like Robert Carol Cohen, Gideon Bachmann, and Warren Sonbert. It's genuinely thrilling to not only see such films in a nominally mainstream documentary (released by Apple Original Films) about a now-mainstream band like the Velvet Underground, but also to see them woven so completely into the documentary history of this band and of American art.

The problem is, as the film continues, it seems like Haynes would rather have made a documentary about the world of Mekas, et. al.

The film really cooks when we're with the band and Warhol superstar Woronov and Nico as they fully overlap with the experimental scene, whether that's performing at the Exploding Plastic Inevitables or noodling in the Factory or antagonizing the free love crowd in Los Angeles. After the band achieved cult status in New York, thanks to Warhol and his happenings, they got booked in LA galleries where, as Tucker says in the film, ''We're the exhibit.'' Gallerists thought they were getting Warhol Pop, not black leather-clad noise rock. When they eventually hit an actual venue, they were rejected a second time by flowers-in-the-hair weirdos. ''They were hippies,'' Tucker says. ''We hated hippies.'' (If anyone ever wants to know why I love the Velvet Underground, I'm showing them that scene.)

But after Reed fires Warhol as the band's producer, then fires Cale, the band becomes less experimental and the film becomes more conventional. You can almost hear the air wheezing out of the thing as it becomes a beat-by-beat chronicle of the Velvets' demise and limps toward a traditional where-are-they-now wrap up. It's easy to understand why the film sags this way: the Velvet Underground is just never as thrilling or revolutionary as on its first two albums, or in the run up to them. The broader culture gets more boring, too. Still, it's a drag to watch what is mostly a truly wonderful, individual documentary succumb to the forces of conventionality.

That said, those 90 minutes are so good that The Velvet Underground is more than worthy of its subject. And if it inspires Haynes to go back to documentary and really dig into American underground cinema, even better.

In the same vein as the film, the Criterion Collection's Blu-Ray edition of The Velvet Underground mostly lives up to the documentary. Though that's a bit unfair. Simply by existing this disc is a win. Released by a streaming service often means no physical format release at all (see: Haynes' film Wonderstruck, released by Amazon and only to be seen on Prime Video.)

But in typical Criterion fashion, the disc goes all in on its subject. Extras include a commentary with Haynes and editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz; extra interview moments with Mekas, Woronov, and Richman; video of Haynes and musicians John Cale and Maureen Tucker talking with writer Jenn Pelly; a teaser trailer; and, wonderfully, full versions of a handful of the films Haynes excerpts in the documentary. There's also a text track that identifies the names of the films. It sounds great, but in execution it's pretty rough. Haynes quick-cuts through these a lot, and often titles blip on the screen so fast you don't even have time to blink and miss them.

(One thing I would have loved to see included is Ed Lachman's film documenting Reed and Cale's performance of their album Songs for Drella from 1990. The cinematographer, who shot The Velvet Underground, unearthed the Drella negative around the time Haynes' film was inching toward home video. It would've been a nice add to the Criterion set, a kind of coda to so many of the doc's storylines. Alas.)

Still, this disc does fit into what is something of a slow-burning renaissance for experimental filmmaking on home video. Criterion has released sets dedicated to Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton (neither included in The Velvet Underground, somehow), as well as Eclipse packages of Norman Mailer and Robert Downey films, while Kino Lorber has released Deren and Jacobs collections, as well as Adolfas Mekas' feature Hallelujah the Hills. (It had released brother Jonas' Walden and Lost Lost Lost, now out of print.) Milestone Films' Project Shirley, dedicated to preserving the work of Shirley Clarke, is a miracle. And then there are the various survey sets released by Kino and others, like Silent Avant Garde and Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film 1920 - 1970. Prints are the best way to see these films, but with a limited (and shrinking) number of societies dedicated to showing these works, such discs are essential modes of exhibition (and, frankly, preservation).

Working from a 4K digital master, approved by Haynes and Lachman, the film looks as good as it should - particularly those old experimental film clips, whose source condition is never assured. There is a slight gauzy quality to some of the contemporary interviews, but that's an artistic choice to desaturate and hazify, as if we're all living through the same delirious fantasy.

The two audio tracks, lossless Dolby Atmos (Dolby TrueHD 7.1 for older home theater systems) and lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo for convenience on other players, similarly do right by the film and, especially the Velvet Underground. There's something particularly thrilling about hearing those songs in top-tier quality emanate from your home theater setup (or just your headphones). This is the one area where Criterion had to nail it, and they did.

The Velvet Underground is a must-own for any Velvets fan. But even for just curious listeners (and viewers), the documentary will give you, at least, new insights into this seminal band. And when it's at its best, it's revelatory. It deserves a place on your shelf next to the banana record and Reed's book of musings on Tai chi.

- Dante A. Ciampaglia


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