Review: The Velvet Underground
The debut album by The Velvet Underground and Nico famously sold few copies. There is a joke around the album that says only 150 people bought the album, but everyone who did started a band. This speaks to the band's influence even if they never achieved commercial success.
Director Todd Haynes understands the band and their influence and creates a music documentary as original as the band. It wonderfully sidelines all of the expected qualities of a rock-doc. This isn't going to provide you with a primer on the band, who included Lou Reed, John Cale, and Nico and was involved in Andy Warhol's art movement at The Factory. If you know nothing about this era of art and music, you may find yourself lost for a bit. The film functions more as an experience, like seeing the band probably was, than a historical trace of the band's rise. It certainly has traditional elements of a documentary such as talking-head interviews, but it mostly lives in a striking collage of sound, images, archival film, and the fantastic music of The Velvet Underground.
We have already been treated to one great music documentary this year, Questlove's Summer of Soul. Now we get a second and one that is deliberate in every song it highlights and every moment of the band the film focuses in on. The film's editing follows both an intellectual and artistic pulse. Editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz craft a unique, flowing film that twists and turns to the pulse of the music. At times, this unique editing style overtakes any logical narrative and the film becomes an art piece remembering this time in history, full of artists in New York railing against the hippies on the West Coast.
The overlapping dialogue, music, and split-screen images are thrilling. Haynes makes this era of the 60s feel alive in a way few films have. He also doesn't shy away from the darker parts of Lou Reed and John Cale's lives or the tumultuous run the band had which included many hurtful moments. Reed in particular comes off as a tortured and conflicted figure, at once brutally honest and sincere in his lyrics and cruel in his actions.
This is a wonderful and thrilling film. This is peak Haynes as he pulls out all of his techniques, passions, and experimental tendencies and crafts them into what may be his purest expression. I wish I could have seen this on a giant screen, surrounded by darkness, with the audio turned way up. The film is an account of a time and place, rendered into a spectacle that deserves your full attention. Apple TV+ will have to do.